Saturday, May 22, 2010

A Modern Fable: China is the Borg

In 1900, a new book by a fledgling children’s author reached stores in America.  The 44-year old writer had a checkered career that included acting, breeding chickens, selling fine china, serving as secretary for a baseball team, and founding the National Association of Window Trimmers of America.

Indeed, his new children’s book contained elements of many of these life experiences: a dismal trip through Kansas, a plank road built to facilitate transport of farm produce in Syracuse, yellow paving bricks at the Military Academy in Peekskill, and the launch of an industrial oil brand to keep machine parts from seizing up.  He lived at different times of the year with his formidable mother-in-law, one of the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement in America and a woman so controversial and scary as to be called “satanic,”—a wicked witch of sorts.  And, of course, the author's visit to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893—a veritable Emerald City--had left a lasting impression.

His children's book went on to sell millions of copies and, after its translation to film in 1939, would become the single most-watched movie of all time.  (This material is summarized from Evan I. Schwartz’s fascinating Finding Oz.)

All well and good, until 1964, when a high school history teacher named Henry Littlefield, attempting to interest his students in the Gilded Age, likened Lyman Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz to the 1880s populist movement in America.