I’ve loved the Wizard of Oz since I was a child when I used to look forward to its annual showing on TV (in those ancient, pre-VCR and –DVD days). I own all of Baum’s Oz books and many of Ruth’s Plumly Thompson’s canonical Oz books as well. I was a member of the International Wizard of Oz Club for a while. So The Wonderful Wizard of Oz holds a place near and dear to my heart. And while I’m not a literary scholar, I am an academic and can appreciate well-written literary criticism. Alissa Burger has written one such study. Burger sets out to explore several key themes as they play out in six versions of the classic story: Baum’s original novel and the classic MGM film with which we are all familiar; the novel WICKED and its Broadway adaptation; the movie THE WIZ (with African-American cast); and the SyFy (gosh, I hate the new name for the channel!) original film THE TIN MAN.
There are four key themes or categories of analysis explored here: gender (well, let’s be honest and just say that Burger looks at femininity, as she doesn’t actually cover masculinity); race; the idea and meanings of “home”; and the role of magic and witchcraft. We also get chapter-length treatments of the role THE WIZARD OF OZ has played in twentieth-century American mythology and the complexities of translating Baum’s text to stage and screen productions, as well as the different ways this has been attempted over the years. Burger does a good job of exploring each of themes in sometimes unexpected ways. For example, the issue of race is an obvious one to look at in THE WIZ, but Burger also uses this to explore other kinds of race – the green-skinned Wicked Witch and the Munchkins, for example – found in all versions of the text, as well as the concept of the Other in Oz. So this is a fairly interesting and insightful set of analyses.
While Burger’s text does deal with scholarly matters, it only rarely gets bogged down in academic jargon that is impenetrable to “outsiders.” As a historian, I have found that many of my colleagues have a tendency to produce extremely dense text when writing about theoretical matters. This is one of the greatest failings of the profession in my view. Alissa Burger, however, has produced a very readable text. It can be a little dry at times, and is occasionally repetitious, but it’s generally well-crafted.
I have a few minor criticisms of Burger’s treatment of some of her themes. For example, Burger says she wants to examine gender in Oz. Fine and dandy. But as a historian of masculinity (among other things), I am particularly sensitive to “gender” being merely a code phrase for “women” or “femininity.” What we’re lacking here in Burger’s analysis is a look at masculinity in Oz. Men do, after all, possess gender, just as women do. This is a significant omission, since all of the male characters in the story suffer from significant “lacks” (brains, heart, courage, magic) that the women in the story possess in abundance. None of them is what we might think of as a “traditional” male figure, in Baum’s time or our own. In other words, this is a clear area for further study and represents a missed opportunity in this one. There are also a few additional areas I’d have liked to see Burger tackle. For example, in her discussion of magic, there’s almost no mention of the pivotal character of the Wizard in any of the texts/productions. He’s a self-proclaimed “humbug” without any access to real magic (at least in the first book), but everyone thinks he’s intensely magical. When coupled with the fact that he’s also the only male magical practitioner we encounter in Oz, I think there’s room for an interesting discussion here. What is Baum getting at with this magical “lack”? What might it mean that he’s male and all the other magical practitioners are female? Surely there’s room to tie this in with Burger’s discussion of gender in Oz as well. While it certainly would have expanded the scope of Burger’s study, I’d also have liked her to do a bit with some of Baum’s later Oz novels. The characters and setting are greatly expanded in the later books, and surely there’s plenty of material there that’s ripe for the same kind of textual explication that Burger does here. Oh well, that leaves plenty of room for another scholar.
I should note – in case it’s not abundantly apparent from the above – that because this is a scholarly work (the author is an English professor), I would not recommend it to those readers with only a casual or superficial interest in the Wizard of Oz. Certainly, even the casual reader would find material of interest, but to really get the most out of this text, the reader must have some academic or scholarly interest in the subject. To those readers, I recommend this work highly. It’s a well done and interesting study.
Review copyright 2012 J. Andrew Byers