September 06, 2006

Wicked Witch = wicked Indian?

Thomas St. John:  Indian-Hating in 'The Wizard of Oz'The Wicked Witch of the West is illustrated in the 1900 first edition as a pickaninny, with beribboned, braided pigtails extended comically. Baum repeats the word "brown" in describing her. But this symbol's real historic depth lies in the earlier Puritans' confounding of European witches with the equally heathen American Indians.

The orphan Dorothy's violent removal from Kansas civilization, her search for secret and magical cures for her friends, her capture, enslavement to an evil figure—and the killing of this figure that is forced on her—all these themes Baum takes from the already two hundred year old tradition of the Indian captivity narrative which stoked the fires of Indian-hating and its hope of "redemption through violence."
For more on the story, see The Indian-Oz Connection.


Anonymous said...

It is from kind of an odd source: the clearly antisemitic "Palestinian Chronicle" with its map of Israel (not Palestine) in its logo (a juxtaposition that is favorite visual presentation of those who want to wipe out the Israelis), The "board of advisors" which includes the genocidal Hanan Ashrawi, who until recently denied that Israelis had a right to exist!.

On to the content: I think that there is a lot of over-interpretation, and probably the majority of the places, situations, characters, and names were from a fiction writer making up something without a lot of thought in order to fit the story. If I recall the original Denslow picture of the Witch properly, she had an eyepatch and made me think of a pirate more than anything else.

So much of the case for the allegories comes from the appearance of certain characters in the W. W. Denslow illustrations. These are just in one book. For the 13 books afterwards, Baum worked with John R. Neill, who depicted the same characters very differently. Neill's depictions were very often in contradiction with Denslow's illustrations (and thus in contradiction with a lot of the allegory claims).

The jumbling of the supposed allegorical equivalents in Baum's story actually works against the case that there is allegory going on: why would the "Black/Native" Wicked Witch be commanding the "Northwest Mounted Police" Winged Monkeys? Why does the "Montana gold road" of Yellow Brick lead to "Ireland" Emerald City? If the Winkies were Chinese, then what were Baum's actual named "China people"?

Rob said...

Did Baum work with Denslow to determine how his characters should look, or did Denslow develop them independently? I don't you?

Good point about Baum's possible lack of thought. He could've chosen "green" because he was Irish and "yellow brick" because he lived in a gold-mining region...or these colors could've been his favorites. As I wrote, St. John's analysis isn't persuasive, but it's provocative.

Anonymous said...

Or perhaps he chose and emphasized colors to appeal to children with the bold primary colors in the illustrations and in the prose depictions.

More to the "Newspaper Rock" topic, Thomas St. John did mention the yellow Winkie land (the western or eastern 1/4 of Oz) as having something to do with the Chinese. There is no mention at all of the southern 1/4 of Oz, which is the red Quadling Country. I can't think of any sort of connection between Oz's Red Zone and the "red" Native people. That's something you'd think would be present if just about every element of Oz "meant something".

Glad you agree that it is likely that not everything in "The Wizard of Oz" has some sort of allegorical or real-world adaptive inspiration. I would not be surprised if some of the elements did, however. Some things are real obvious, of course: if it seems like an African or a Native, it is of course inspired by such.

I've also seen theories that the whole thing was an allegory about US monetary policy (gold standard, OZ as measure of ounce of precious metal, etc).

My favorite example of over-analyzing is the hullabaloo over Nick Kershaw's pop song "The Riddle".

From Wikipedia: "...he revealed that "The Riddle" meant, in fact, nothing. He just threw a collection of random lines together in haste after persuasion from others in the recording studio, having initially just intended to arrange and record the piece as an instrumental. He added that he could not say anything at the time because he was receiving thousands of essays and theses on the song, establishing what "The Riddle" meant and stood for, and what the answer was, and he did not want to disappoint people.

The discussed lyrics are found here:

Example: "to keep from burning history,
seasons of gasoline and gold,
wise men fold"

Rob said...

Yes...that Baum didn't make the red Quadlings into stand-ins for the "red" Indians is an obvious flaw in St. John's theory.

Baum did introduce races such as the Tottenhots (= African Hottentots) in the Oz books. I suspect these races were usually primitive compared to the "civilized" people of Oz's primary kingdoms.

writerfella said...

Writerfella here --
As a writer, I know the full intent of symbolism and iconoclasm in writing. But sometimes, isn't a wicked witch...just a wicked witch?
Just asking...
All Best
Russ Bates

Rob said...

Author Thomas St. John e-mailed me to say several publications published all or part of his article before the Palestine Chronicle reprinted it. The Chronicle's editor probably saw similarities between the oppression of Palestinians and Indians. He probably thought this article would remind his readers of the similarities.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I think it's a large and deceptive non-academic stretch to use the word "repeatedly" instead of "twice" in your argument -- because that's how many times the word "brown" is used. In fact, very little information about the witch's physical appearance is given in the text. Please rely on the Denslow illustrations to dervive actual information about what she looks like. L. Frank Baum did.

Rob said...

If you're talking about St. John's article, he said "Baum repeats the word 'brown' in describing her." He didn't use the word "repeatedly." You may think St. John overemphasized Baum's use of the word "brown," but he didn't mischaracterize it.