Tin Men and Unintended Symbols

Sunday Letter | #327

The most tragic figure in L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz is, by far, the Tin Man. The 1939 Judy Garland film adaptation elides his origin story, and it wasn’t until I read Baum’s novel last month that I discovered how our Tin Man came to be. The story goes like this:

Before he was made of tin, Tin Man – or Tin Woodman in the book (another pop-cultural elision) – was an ordinary son of a lumberjack, and in love with a Munchkin girl who lived with an old lady. But the old lady wouldn’t let her marry, and instead wanted her to continue cooking and laboring around the house. So the old lady makes an offering to the wicked Witch of the East – as evil-stepmother-ish figures do – and the Witch enchants the woodman’s axe, causing it to slip one day and cut off his leg.

Our steadfast woodman doesn’t let that get him down; he seeks out a tinsmith to make him a replacement leg. He goes back to work, only for the same thing to happens to his other leg. The nursery-rhyme cycle runs its course: the axe keeps dismembering him, then decapitates him, until finally, it splits his torso in half. And although he gets a tin replacement for this, too, he is now without a human heart, and no longer feels any love for the girl. Tin Man goes back to doing the only thing he does well – chopping wood, silver body gleaming in the sun – until one day he’s caught in a rainstorm and his joints rust in place. When Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion finally rescue him, he’s been frozen for an entire year.

If this sounds to you like political-cartoon-level allegory, you wouldn’t be far off. According to some historians, Baum and W.W. Denslow, the book’s illustrator, drew from popular political cartoons of the time, in which tin-clad men were prominent symbols for the dehumanizing aspects of industrialization. And this isn’t even the wildest socioeconomic read of the book; my partner remembers an econ professor telling her class that the yellow brick road represented the gold standard.

A more-modern touchpoint here might be the Phyrexian race in the card game Magic: The Gathering. In Magic lore, the Phyrexians are a technological peoples who strive for compleation, for the total replacement of all organic body parts with artifice – cyborgs wanting to shed the org. (Though I am not yet aware of any economists or social critics who’ve drawn parallels between the Phyrexians and some of today’s tech leaders.)

I digress! What’s even more fascinating to me here, is that Baum’s use of the Tin Man wasn’t meant to be social commentary. In the The Annotated Wizard of Oz, which is how I read the story for the first time – and which is a literary achievement in its own right – Baum expert and annotator Michael Patrick Hearn says this in the introduction:

Baum did not intend his story to contain some overriding or underlying moral, as in Aesop’s fables or Perrault’s fairy tales. He was exploring a personal mythology, in which many truths could be expressed. The characters and incidents in the book may be viewed as symbolic, and symbols can represent many things at the same time [ … ] “But,” as W.H. Auden said of George MacDonald’s stories, “to hunt for symbols in a fairy tale is absolutely fatal.”

As a reader, this blows me away, because I have a mental image of authors like Baum skillfully deploying symbols to precise and powerful effect. As a writer, though, it feels spot on. Many writers, myself included, will tell you about the way that a published story or novel will keep giving over time, will reveal parts of yourself to you long after you’ve finished writing. We might have some sense of the meanings of symbols, but a lot of the time, we are also selecting certain images or objects that are laden with multiple meanings, or are even unclear in meaning, at least in the moment, but feel inexplicably “right” for the story.

To be writing is to be dreaming – to produce dream objects – and any post-analysis is just one reading, one interpretation. When writing a novel, it’s rarely as clean-cut (sorry) as, “I need a stand-in for the evils of industry, let me put here a man made out of metal.” At least not for me.

In reading Hearn’s words, I can’t help but think also about the internet, and about social media, especially, as a great sifter for potent symbols. Or maybe it’s less like sifting and more like how synthetic diamonds are made – nucleated under the super-heated, super-pressurized plasma of response videos, retweets, and algorithmic recommendations. A natural process that would take eons is compressed; these meme-gems become the bases of wild and sometimes dangerous mythologies – of conspiracy theories.

To hunt for symbols on Twitter might be even more fatal.