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The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the Test of Time by Daniel Criscuolo

When L. Frank Baum created The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900, he  probably did not envision it becoming one of the most legendary pieces of literature in American history.  The chances that he saw the direction it would take itself are even slimmer.  The children’s story that also (likely) served as an allegory for 19th century populism is, at this point, more well known for its 1939 film adaptation, this time titled The Wizard of Oz.  The movie adaptation focused itself on the fantastical world created by Baum and featured songs written specifically for the movie that have become iconic in their own right.  For example, it is hard to think of the story separately from “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” and “Over the Rainbow” was named the best song of the 20th century by the Recording Industry Association of America.[1]  The film turned the story into one of the most well known ever, which is certainly an accomplishment, but in doing so, the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz lost its original allegorical significance.  Instead, The Wizard of Oz is thought of as one of the greatest family movies and Oz came to be a wondrous and fantastical paradigm of utopias in cinema.  [2]

Following the 1939 film adaptation, the story was adapted into another musical and subsequent film, The Wiz, this time featuring an all-black cast, all new songs, and a re-imagination of the land of Oz in a New York City setting.

In his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin argues that “the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition.”[3]  In the case of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, this could certainly be true.  In the adaptations of Baum’s original story, the original allegory was lost as the overall themes changed to match the times of their respective releases.  The way the recreations altered the way people think of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is naturally due to the changes made in each story, but that does not mean the original is tainted or disrespected: the tale likely owes its iconicity to these recreations.  Martin Kemp, who disagreed with Benjamin over the effects of reproduction, said: “any widespread broadcasting of fame ensures that the embodying of a special presence in the original is enormously enhanced.” [4]  In the case of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, both are certainly true.  Much of the original story changed, but the wonderment and the whimsy remained.






[1] “Best Songs Of The Century?” CBS News, March 08, 2001, accessed March 01, 2018,

[2] The Wizard of Oz (1939).

[3] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

[4] Martin Kemp, Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[5] The Wiz (1978).

American Dream Within The Wizard of Oz – Morgan Evans

Why has L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz remained one of the most cited movies 75 years later[1]? There are so few book-made-movies that have lasted as long as this tale has from 1939. It is still shown annually on different television networks, despite further technological advances than just technicolor. For generations, this movie has adapted to fitting different applications and can be used to explain different themes and ideas while adapting to society over time.

One of the more prominent themes of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is the American dream. It has been and still can be applied to various different political and social perspectives. One of the more striking themes of the children’s book is its analogous story to the American dream.

A very obvious connection between the story and the American dream is that idea that working hard can pay off. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy along with the scarecrow, tin man, and the cowardly lion all must trek along the land of Oz to get to the Emerald City, following the yellow brick road, in order to get Dorothy back home. Like the American dream, hard work is rewarded with the achievement of one’s goals. For Dorothy, it’s going home, which she eventually gets. In America, hard work can lead to that ideal family in a suburban home with a white picket fence.

The things that the scarecrow, the tin man, and the lion are seeking are also important elements to the American dream. Brains, heart, and courage are essential to succeed as Americans. Intelligence is important to getting a job in America to be able to work and being able to make money. This characteristic might be identified first for the classic order of the American dream: go to school, get a job, get married, have children, and live happily ever after.

Heart, and more specifically, love is important to accomplish the classic American dream. The story of how the tin man came to lost his heart is also a fascinating component that could relate to the image of a happy marriage. In the traditional view of the American dream, children will result from a happy marriage.

Finally, courage is the last identified trait. To me, this means standing up for what you believe in and doing right by your family and country. Although not as direct or clear as some of the other ideal characteristics for Americans, this was still important to living the American dream in the early twentieth century.

I also see the story as a promotion of a sense of patriotism for America. Even though Dorothy is a young girl from Kansas who describes the land as grey and bleak, she still comes to realize that there is no place like home: the United States. During her adventure through Oz, there are a number of different lands she must cross within their country. Some are exciting and are described to be beautiful, but Dorothy knows that despite the boring place that her Kansas life might bewith her aunt and uncle, she knows how important that is in her heart and values her family. All of which resembles the classic image of the American dream.

[1] Andrew Pulver, “Follow the Yellow Brick Road: Wizard of Oz is Still the Most Influential Hollywood Film,” The Guardian, January 20, 2015,

Multiple Aspects: The Wizard of Oz as an American icon by Suet Yuk (Rainie) Au Yeung

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz written by author L. Frank Baum in 1900 is one of most classic Children’s novel in the United States. Dorothy, a young farm girl from Kansas with her dog Toto, begin the adventures in the magical Land of Oz after they are swept away from home by a cyclone. Similar to other beloved female characters such as Alice who wore puffed sleeve dress with white pleated sweetheart neckline and Little Red Riding Hood who wore the red cape have become classic fashion, Dorothy’s blue and white gingham check dress is also a notable icon. Not to mention that her magic silver slippers (ruby red in the movie in 1939) is as powerful as the magic wand of Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother! The story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is an American icon which illustrates the characters’ convinced beliefs of the American dream, represents the populist movement in the late 1800s, and implicates political messages of the current American political landscape.

In the story, Dorothy was told by Witch of the North that she needs to go to the Emerald City in the Land of Oz to seek for help from the Wizard of Oz, who might be able to help her get back home.[1] On her way to the Emerald City, Dorothy became friends with a Scarecrow, a Tin Man and a Cowardly Lion who joined her journey. All of them are pursuing something that would make themselves a better being or for something that they want. Dorothy wants to go home, the Scarecrow is looking for a brain, the Tin Man wants a heart, the Lion wants to obtain courage. Throughout the journey, the Scarecrow he consistently comes up with smart ideas whenever the team faces a challenge, the Tin Man processes emotions through his caring for his friends. He even cries over the death of a beetle, and the Cowardly Lion demonstrates courage when he carries his friends and jumps over deep ditch. During the journey, they fail to realize that they already possess the things they unconsciously want.  Rather, they all believe that they are missing something only the great Oz can provide and that they can only achieve their goals in the Emerald City.[2] Even though Oz told them that he cannot grant them their wishes, the Scarecrow, the Tin man and the Lion refused to listen.[3]

The way that they finally arrived at their dream place, the Emerald City in the Land of Oz, after they overcome many challenges is similar to the promise of American dream. If one works hard, anyone can reach the dream of the middle class. They felt satisfied only when Oz provides them with symbolic objects that represent a brain, a heart and courage. Their satisfaction exposes the impact of American dream in their beliefs. They believe that achieving their goals from Oz is the only way to approve their hard work to arrive at Emerald City has pay off. This demonstrates the powerful impact of the American dream, which contribute the novel as an iconic American story.

Another aspect that makes The Wonderful Wizard of Oz an American icon is the Populist elements that implies in the story. In 1964, historian Henry Littlefield points out the novel is an allegory of the Populist movement in the 1890s.[4] The rise of Populist Party was organized by common people such as farmers and factory workers who united to form a third-party to challenge power from bankers and business leaders.[5] Littlefield argues that the Scarecrow in the story represents “self-doubt” American farmers who demonstrate “a terrible sense of inferiority” during this period. [6] The Tin Man symbolizes factory workers who have been dehumanized by the big business. [7] Because there were many Populists advocated the federal government to adopt the monetary policy for free minting silver money during the economic depression in 1893, Littlefield interprets the Oz’s yellow brick road as the existing gold standard and indicates Dorothy’s silver shoes represents the free silver movement.[8]The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a Populist allegory, which contains elements that reflects the social and political movement in the late 1800s.

The iconic association between the novel and politics is remained today as it has been used to convey messages in current American political climate. Even though everyone believes that Oz is a powerful leader, Dorothy and her friends uncover that the great Wizard of Oz is simply an ordinary man towards the end of the story. He used a variety of tricks that allowed him to be regarded as a powerful Wizard. CNN Journalist Jeanne Moos disapproves the way that the President Donald Trump intended to avoid answering any questions about the Republican tax deduction plan by taping himself talking on two TV screens rather than physically being present during White House press briefing to is similar to Wizard of Oz, who tries to maintain his authority by cunning and avoid presenting his actual appearances in front of the public. [9]In the article “Trump is like ‘Wizard of Oz,’” author Ed Sokalski satirically criticizes the administration of Trump by indicating that his inefficient leadership just as the incapability of Wizard of Oz, an ordinary man with no special power.[10] The story demonstrates the notion of questioning the untruthful leadership has continually being used by political critics today.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is an American icon in multiple aspects. The story demonstrates the American belief that hard work pays off. It also highlights the elements of Populist movement, and exposes unreliable leadership, which has remain being used to challenge current political leader.

[1] L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (New York: George M. Hill Company, 1900).

[2] Ibid., 55.

[3] Ibid., 131.

[4] Peter Liebhold, “Populism and the World of Oz,” National Museum of American History.

Smithsonian, November 2, 2016, (accessed February 28, 2018).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “CNN playfully mocks Trump’s ‘Wizard of Oz’ act at the White House press briefing,” The Week, January 5, 2018, (accessed February 28, 2018).

[10] Ed Sokalski, “Trump is like ‘Wizard of Oz,’” The Morning Call, February 23, 2018, (accessed February 28, 2018).

Christ the Redeemer and the Statue of Liberty: Great Guardians of Nations by Morgan O’Donnell

When thinking about national statues and monuments, my mind flashed back to a picture I saw when I was twelve and nearing the height of my Jonas Brothers obsession. It was a photo of the three brothers at the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I knew nothing about the statue at the time but I was struck by how massive and looming it was compared to the size of an average human. I was even more captivated when I came across photos that showed the statue looking out over the city’s vast landscape of skyscrapers, mountains, neighboring islands, and water. Christ the Redeemer may seem to have little in common with the U.S.’s Statue of Liberty (for starters, it’s a him/Him…) but the two iconic structures have one striking similarity: they are what their people want them to be.

The idea for Cristo Redentor, as it is known in Portuguese, came from the people of Brazil themselves. Although the country had gone through a separation of church and state at the end of the 19th century, a group of Brazilians who feared “an advancing tide of Godlessness” throughout the country and the world after World War I decided that there was a need for a national symbol that would reclaim Brazil — and Rio, its capital city at the time — as a land of Christianity. [1] The group, the Catholic Circle of Rio, organized an event to collect donations and signatures to support the building of the statue and considered many designs before choosing engineer Heitor da Silva Costa’s image of Christ with arms outstretched as a symbol of peace. French sculptor Paul Landowski led the creation of the 98-foot tall statue, which is made out of soapstone and concrete, and after nine years of construction, Christ the Redeemer officially opened on Mount Corcovado in 1931. [2]

Now, a statue with a founding based entirely on one specific religion may seem to run counter to the secular American values of freedom and democracy that the famous Statue of Liberty has come to represent, but I feel that both are examples of how the values that are associated with icons can change over time while still retaining a sense of national pride. Historian Bernard Dard writes that while Lady Liberty has been used by everyone from business firms to cartoonists for a variety of purposes — from commercial product promotion to advocacy of liberal immigration laws and criticism of the government — her core symbolism as the bearer of American ideals such as liberty, opportunity, and democracy (and as America itself) has remained intact and transcended all else. [3]

In a similar way, although Christ the Reedemer began as a symbol of Christianity, it is not exclusively so and it has also acquired a greater significance. According to a BBC article, Count Celso, one of the first to be involved with project in its early stages during the 1920s, described the finished statue as “a monument to science, art and religion.” [4] The rector of the chapel that sits inside the base of the statue (the pedestal that elevates its full height to 125 feet) calls it a religious, cultural, and national symbol for Brazil and a means of welcoming all those who pass through Rio, almost like a host. And for a local sorbet vendor, who is also quoted in the article, the statue is a beautiful place with special significance to the community around it. [5] Christ the Reedemer stands as a representation of the Brazilian people’s accepting and warmhearted attitude towards all visitors to Rio and citizens of the world, just like the welcoming and protective qualities that have been attributed to the Statue of Liberty over time as she has greeted new arrivals to America — “From her beacon-hand/Glows world-wide welcome,” as Emma Lazarus’s famous poem states. [6]

Native songwriter Gilberto Gil perfectly captured this essence surrounding Christ the Redeemer and Rio’s culture in his 1968 song “Aquele Abraco” (translated as “That Hug”):

The simple song is a love letter to Brazil, as Gil recounts walking through the streets, admiring the city’s beauty and embracing the people he encounters:
“My path through the world 
I even trace 
Bahia has already given me 
Ruler and compass 
Who knows of me I am 
That hug! 
For you that forgot me 
That hug! 
Alô Rio de Janeiro 
That hug! 
All the Brazilian people 
That hug” [7]
 These icons, one American, one Brazilian, represent important attitudes and values of their home countries on such a strong level that they have basically been elevated throughout history and now come to represent the countries themselves.. Whether you see the outstretched arms of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro or the Statue of Liberty’s torch held high over New York Harbor, they send the same message from the people of two different nations: we will embrace you, take you in and welcome you home.


1. Boorstein, Michelle. “The many meanings of Rio’s massive Christ statue.” The Washington Post. August 09, 2016.

2. “Christ the Redeemer (statue).” Wikipedia.

3. Dard, Bertrand. “Liberty as Image and Icon.” In The Statue of Liberty Revisited. Smithsonian Institution Press.

4. Bowater, Donna, Stephen Mulvey, and Tanvi Misra. “Arms wide open.” BBC News. March 10, 2014.

5. Ibid.

6. Lazarus, Emma. “The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus.” Poetry Foundation.

7. “Aquele Abraço – Gilberto Gil.”

The Godfather, the Statue of Liberty, and Capitalism by Lena-Marie Lannutti

The Godfather films are an epic saga that is often credited as some of the best films ever made. Within its narrative is a cultural tie between the criminal underworld and the American Dream.  Francis Ford Coppola, the director, has remarked “it’s not a film about organized gangsters, but a family chronicle. A metaphor for capitalism in America”[1]. Besides these ideas of capitalism there are other concepts with gender roles as well.  The use of an icon like the Statute of Liberty in these films represent these two concepts. As cited in the third chapter, Bodnar cites how from the beginning, Americans associated through the Statute of Liberty, concepts like liberty with capitalism. “It is not the pursuit of happiness that allies with life and liberty as inalienable rights, but property that anchors and stabilizes American liberty.”[2]

The Godfather was one of the first films of New Hollywood cinema, and the first film since the early 1930s to feature criminals in main role instead of a secondary character[3]. In Italian-Americans in film, the author states the film, “…became the prototype and most important legitimator of the new wave of Italian-American sex-and-violence odysseys”[4] The film became a huge success and a cultural touchstone because of its complicated narrative and overall quality of production.

On the surface, the film presents typical gender roles “The older generation the traditional earth mothers, provide passive and stoic support for their men. The younger…. Modern nags become Italian-American spoiled brats”[5] Though there is evidence in the film of subversion of gender roles, visually and narratively traditional gender roles are reinforced. The Statute of Liberty in these scenes can be seen as a heightened extension of “earth mother” of the older generation as cited by Cortes. This connection has been linked to the statute itself in the past, “Standing upon the threshold of New York, which is the doorway of the Union, she will seem to offer the freedom of the New World to the thousands that shall flock to us from the Old…”[6] This line shows how people imprinted maternal qualities onto to the Statute because of her gender, and her connection to immigration.

In one scene in The Godfather some underlings of Don Vito assassinate a guy on the outskirts of New York, in the background the Statute of Liberty is in view in a sense “watching” everything happen. The scene alone juxtaposes the ideas of the American Dream the Statue with its representation of freedom, with these gangsters, who commit crimes in pursuit of the American Dream. Visually this scene resembles one of the last scenes in the film where Kay looks through the doorway (at the moment) unaware of her husband’s position as the head of a criminal organization.  Both scenes place women (in one case the Statute of Liberty) as passive observers to corruptions of the American Dream.

This final connects the narrative of The Godfather with the immigrant experience, and executes this by invoking the Statue of Liberty. Once again, the Statute is cast as an observer, this time a witness to the origins of the Godfather himself. The fictional character presents an immigrant narrative that is rooted in American history. “The individualistic liberties with which arriving immigrants invested the Statue of Liberty—as linked to preconceptions or early impressions of America—often emphasized hopes for new prosperity and wealth.”[7] This new prosperity is exactly what the Godfather achieved, the complication is that this was achieved through notorious means. It is this paradox that has made the narrative so engaging almost forty years after the films were released. The power of this legacy is consistently tied with the iconography and the mission of the American Dream, and this is best exemplified in the films’ use of the Statute of Liberty.



Fig 1-2 Scenes from The Godfather[8]






Figure 3 Scene from The Godfather Part II[9]


[1] Browne, Nick Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Trilogy Cambridge University Press, 2000 28

[2] Bodnar John The Changing Faces of the Statue of Liberty 2005 62

[3] Browne, Nick Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Trilogy Cambridge University Press, 2000 81

[4]  Cortes, Carlos Italian Americans in Film: From Immigrants to Icons Oxford University Press 1987, 117

[5]  Ibid., 117

[6] Bodnar, John The Changing Faces of the Statue of Liberty 2005 98

[7] Ibid., 102

[8] Coppola, Francis Ford The Godfather 1972 Paramount Pictures (images found on Netflix)

[9] Coppola, Francis Ford The Godfather Part II 1974 Paramount Pictures (images found on Netflix)

The Two Faces of the Statue of Liberty in the Feminist Movement by Emily Grimaldi

The moment I thought to write about the Statue of Liberty as a strong female icon, I immediately found some depiction of her deep in the abyss of my television knowledge. The animated Netflix show, Big Mouth, follows the exploits of young teens trying to navigate the art of becoming an adult. In the second episode of the series, the kids take a field trip to the Statue of Liberty, where Jessi gets her first period. The Statue of Liberty takes Jessi into her hands and gives her the harsh facts about being a women in today’s society.

Portrayed as a French-speaking, cigarette smoking, doesn’t-take-crap-from-anyone kind of woman, the Statue of Liberty asserts herself as the strong, independent figure we believe she is. However, she is a hopeless pessimist who does not find any inspiration in herself. Even when Jessi accuses the Statue of being a bit cynical, the Statue sarcastically apologizes for not being “more America, sunny Mickey Mouse”. Here, not only does the Statue of Liberty represent women, but she depicts the age old struggle of women by saying that life is hard and there aren’t very many good things about being a woman in a male driven society. Liberty has stood in the New York Harbor for decades and has yet to see a woman rise to power in America.

This is quite contrary to how we as Americans view the Statue of Liberty. As Bodnar points out, women during the suffrage movement used the statue as a symbol of their cause.[1] These women addressed the contradiction that a woman had become the symbol of a land where women had no rights. Because this movement succeeded, we regard the Statue of Liberty as an inspiration and representation of a confident, powerful woman. She is optimistic and hopeful. She is a positive and figure. She is a strong, independent woman. We believe she is here to inspire us, which is where the Big Mouth portrayal comes in. Some believe she is antiquated while some believe she is still relevant. Some believe there is still some inspiration to be found while some believe the torch has gone out. Some have hope that a woman’s place in society will change while some are resigned to the current state of affairs. These various understandings and interpretations truly make the Statue of Liberty an American icon.

1. Bodnar, JohnLaura BurtJennifer Stinson, and Barbara Truesdell2005The Changing Face of the Statue of LibertyBloomington: Center for the Study of History and Memory, Indiana University.

Martin Luther King Jr. and the Myth of John Henry by Suet Yuk (Rainie) Au Yeung

The myth of John Henry sacrificing his life to compete with a mechanical drill reminds me of Martin Luther King Jr., who also devoted his life to contribute to the cause of fighting against a powerful social system with racial inequality.

Photo from

It is important to note that historian Scott Nelson discusses the legend of John Henry, a powerful black man who competed against a steam-powered hammer and died after his victory.[1] This myth could be associated with a true story of convicted laborer, who was another John Henry.[2] John Henry was a victim of the black codes when racial discrimination laws in Southern states that targeted newly freed slaves post-Civil War. He was arrested because of “housebreaking and larceny” with a10-year sentence and became a convict laborer who was leased to the C&O Railroad by the Virginia Penitentiary. [3] There is always a gap between history and legend. However, the answer to the question of “who was John Henry” seems less essential, because John Henry already transformed from a man to a myth and became an iconic figure. John Henry was an icon of African American folk hero, who portrayed the courage of a common man to challenge a powerful opponent through sweat and self-sacrifice. King also illustrated this iconic figure, as he demonstrated unyielding persistence and a fighting spirit under racial discrimination that was widespread in the legal system in the American society in 1960s.

Photo from

In the Letter from Birmingham Jail, King emphasized that fighting for racial equality is a battle between all African Americans and the segregated social system in the United States. King believed that it is essential to race against time to lead the African American community fighting the battle against discrimination because “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” [4] Similar to the myth of John Henry in which he seizes every minute and second to compete with a mechanical drill that made him an icon of a courageous man against a machine, King is an icon of a brave man going against the social system as he competes against time unremittingly to challenge racial discrimination that was established in American society for hundreds of years.

Although the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, gave African Americans citizenship and equal protection under the law and the 15th Amendment in 1870 granted Blacks the right to vote, African Americans remained far away from obtaining equality. Southern states established “Jim Crow” laws in the late 19th century, which segregated African Americans from whites in all public facilities.[5] Even though the roots of racism deeply shaped the American society, it did not prevent King from challenging inequality that was established in America since its founding. In Martin Luther King: “Now is the time,” author Angela Herbert demonstrates the struggles of King as a civil rights activist. Not only did King face intense pressure, he was also “arrested 30 times and imprisoned along with a number of students and fellow colleagues as a result of their engagement in non-violent protests.”[6] The oppression faced by King did not stop him from challenging racism; he contributed to unite the African American community through his public speeches and literature work.

Photo from

Like John Henry in the legend, who sacrificed his life and illustrated a heroic fighting spirit, King made powerful speeches that fiercely criticized racial discrimination and his assassination shaped him as an epic martyr who devoted his life to push an important step that catalyzed the Civil Rights Movement against racism. Literary critic Michiko Kakutani emphasizes that King “knew how to read his audience and react to it.” [7] King used the power of words with vivid imagery and strong emotion to give African Americans courage and hope. Today, many children watch the Disney version of John Henry and they might fall into sadness when they see John Henry die after his victory. King’s powerful speeches evoke the same emotions and are able to bring people to tears. King united African Americans and challenged the formidable racism in American society, which made him an iconic hero.

Similar to the myth of John Henry, hammering again and again to compete with a massive machine, King attacked the intensive racism that had deep roots in this country through word by word in his speeches. Even though John Henry and King faced mighty opponents, their indomitable fighting spirit demonstrate an iconic American spirit of struggle in which a victim in predicament could become a hero through persistence and self-sacrifice for a greater cause.


[1] Scott Nelson, “Who Was John Henry? Railroad Construction, Southern Folklore, and the Birth

of Rock and Roll,” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas,Vol. 2. No. 2 (2005): 53.

[2] Ibid., 66.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.],” Africana Studies at

University of Pennsylvania, April 16, 1963,, accessed February 14, 2018).

[5] “Civil Rights Movement,” Black History,,, (accessed February 14, 2018).

[6] Angela Herbert, Martin Luther King: “Now is the time”( London: Springer International

Publishing, 2016), 10.

[7] Michiko Kakutani , “The Lasting Power of Dr. King’s Dream Speech,” New York Times,

August 27, 2013, (accessed February 14, 2018).

John Henry: Falsifying Disney’s Version and the Real Deal by Morgan Evans    

The Disney image of history is, more often than not, fictionalized in order to produce a better movie plot. There are several examples of historical figures that were manipulated in to animal-befriending, stunningly beautiful, and missing at least one parent, prince or princess. Pocahontas is an example of a historical figure turned Disney princess with a fictionalized story with talking trees and in reality, helped the settlers a lot less than her Disney princess is portrayed to do.

John Henry’s legend was also modified for the Disney version. For those who may have never heard the legend, John Henry was imprisoned for a crime during the black code era. He was then a steel worker working on a railway that challenged a new machine that was supposedly faster than humans. Henry ultimately defeated the machine by completing more by the day’s end. Due to exhaustion, Henry died after beating the steel machine.

We know from historical context and from the accounts of what actually happened on the construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio railroad from 1870-1873, no white men worked on the railway. It was solely black men. In the Disney version, there are men of all different races working on the railroad. This is fictionalized, Henry, along with the other workers were leased from prisons to work for the railroad for cheap labor.

The classic folk song that has been covered by artists like Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Presley, was even changed for the Disney story. There are over four hundred versions of the song, however, they are all held together by the common themes in the song that highlight John Henry’s life like his death and being buried at the White House[1]. Arguably the most famous part about Henry’s legend, the song, could not make the cut for its original content in the Disney cartoon.

The “promised land” is the land that is granted to the individuals in the Disney short film for the workers constructing the railroad. If they finish the project, they will receive this land in exchange. In reality, there was no promised land. With that, there was no bet with the man operating the machine that John had to beat in order to get the land that they were promised in the first place. And after his passing, it was not like in the Disney short that Henry saved the day for all those who outlived him and were able to live on the land and remember the man who made it all possible.

The Disney character is also sketched out to be dramatically large, with a ridiculously unrealistic shoulder to waist ratio. His brawn figure is also falsified from the real recorded prison records of John Henry. The real John Henry was actually only 5’1″[2]. This makes it highly unlikely that he looked at all like the Disney version that makes him look superhuman with god-like strength. As exemplified below when he arm wrestles two other men with ease.

The Disney story makes John Henry as a slave. His steel hammer is even made out of the chains that were used during his enslavement and given as a wedding gift by his wife, Polly Ann. This is completely false. John Henry was not born a free man, but he was imprisoned after being freed from slavery.

What the Disney movie did get right, however, was the death of John Henry. He literally worked himself to death in pursuit of defeating the machine. Although John Henry is the legend that lives, there were hundreds of men that died doing the same thing that he did.  Unlike the Disney short however, legend is that he was buried at the White House, a nearby penitentiary. John Henry lives on, however, through all of his reproductions in movies, song, and books.

[1] Nelson, Scott, Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, (Chicago: Oxford University Press, 2006), 55

[1] Ibid, 65

“The Swiftest on the Line” by Celeste Joyce

I had never heard of John Henry before this class. As I read the articles about his legend, much of the mythology and language surrounding him was completely new to me. I did find a simple sentiment which resonated with me, and seemed familiar. The longer I read and listened and watched, the more John Henry’s story and song reminded me of a song I have known for a long time.

When I was younger, I got myself a record player. The first record I bought for myself was a Joan Baez album. It featured old folk songs, rendered beautifully in her soprano voice. One song on the album that always stood out to me was “Engine 143.” The song is about a train wreck tragedy, and based upon a real event. After doing the readings for the week I revisited it and researched it. Much to my surprise, one of the first lyrics references the C & O Railroad, the very same company John Henry worked for.

Here are the lyrics in full:

Along came the FFV the swiftest on the line

Running o’er the C and O road just twenty minutes behind
Running into Sou’ville headquarters on the line
Receiving their strict orders from a station just behind
Georgie’s mother came to him with a bucket on her arm
Saying my darling son be careful how you run

For many a man has lost his life in trying to make lost time
And if you run your engine right you’ll get there just on time
Up the road he darted against the rocks he crushed

Upside down the engine turned and Georgie’s breast did smash
His head lay against the firebox door the flames are rolling high
I’m proud to be born for an engineer to die on the C&O road

The doctor said to Georgie my darling boy be still

Your life may yet be saved if it is God’s blessed will
Oh no said George that will not do I want to die so free
I want to die for the engine I love one hundred and forty three

The doctor said to Georgie your life cannot be saved
Murdered upon a railroad and laid in a lonesome grave
His face was covered up with blood his eyes they could not see
And the very last words poor Georgie cried was nearer my God to thee[1]


What always surprised me was the tone of the song. I found it to be rather cheery, despite the horrific event it was based upon. The parallels between this song and the story of John Henry are manifold. It addresses the breakneck pace of innovation, and the consequences of trying to keep up with it. Both myths feature a cautioning woman, Georgie’s mother and Henry’s wife[2], whose warnings are not heeded. Like John Henry, Georgie faces a tragic yet virtuous death.[3] And like in John Henry’s story, the railroad company (the very same C & O) is not cast as a villain, although they directly cause the hero’s death by pushing him too far. Perhaps more so in “Engine 143,” C & O- and by extension progress itself- is declared to be a cause worth dying for.

Further research revealed that the “train wreck” song is something of an American icon in itself.[4] One article listed the ways in which the train itself has deeply affected many of our American idioms. Phrases such as sidetracked, derailed, train of thought, hell on wheels, blowing their stack, right/wrong side of the tracks, are all direct references to trains.[5] The article went on to list a multitude of folk songs influenced by trains, including a list of train disasters. Such songs as “Casey’s Song” and “The Wreck of Old ‘97” both deal with train-related tragedies. “Casey’s Song” lyrics in particular sound so similar to “Engine 143” that I thought it was about the same disaster.[6]

These songs reveal American virtues. As we discussed in class, the obsession with progress, hard work, and innovation are especially prevalent. These songs could serve as a warning about progress, greedy corporations, overexertion, etc., but instead they have become a way to enforce these virtues. John Henry is directly compared to a biblical hero,[7] and Georgie meets God at the end of “Engine 143.” These virtues most certainly have a darker side. Perhaps these songs and myths could be used to expose them, and not simply as a motivational story as in Disney’s John Henry.


[2] Disney, “John Henry,” (Walt Disney Animation Studios, 2000).

[3] Scott Nelson, “Who Was John Henry?” (Oxford University Press, 2006).


[5] Stephanie Hall, “The Folklore and Folksong of Trains in America, Part Two” (Library of Congress, 2015).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Scott Nelson, “Who Was John Henry?” (Oxford University Press, 2006).

Monticello & The Importance of Dissonance at Historical Exhibits by Sean Gibson

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”1 These are the famous words of Thomas Jefferson, one of our esteemed founding fathers. Despite these words proclaiming all men free, Jefferson was a lifelong slave-owner. An exhibit at his plantation Monticello, aptly named Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty, detailed the lives of six slave families that lived there.2 It is important to make it apparent at exhibits related to the revolutionary era, exhibits like Monticello and Independence Mall, that the majority of the founding fathers owned slaves despite their own rebellious fight for freedom.(img source:

If visitors to these parks don’t have their beliefs about the American past challenged, they will leave with an unbalanced view of the men that shaped our country. Many Americans treat the founding fathers as infallible gods who passed down the stone tablets of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Look no farther than the Apotheosis of Washington in the US capitol building, with its absurd rendition of Washington looking down on us from the heavens, as an example of how Americans view the founding fathers. These beliefs about the founding fathers are dangerous, because they feed into the myths of American exceptionalism and moral decay. Excerpts like this one from a National Review article by Dennis Prager about American moral decay,show us what happens when these myths are not combated effectively enough. Historical facts showing a more nuanced story about our founders are somehow an attack on the “beacon of freedom to mankind.”(img source:

To the extent that American history is taught, beginning in high school and often earlier, American history is presented as the history of an immoral nation characterized by slavery, racism, colonialism, imperialism, economic exploitation, and militarism — not of a country that, more than any other, has been the beacon of freedom to mankind, and the country that has spent more treasure and spilled more blood to liberate other peoples than any other nation.3

Any responsible exhibit about the revolutionary period should also discuss the moral failings of our ancestors, if for no other reason then to show us how far we have come and that they were also mere mortals. As Jill Ogline argues in her piece, Creating Dissonance for the Visitor: The Heart of the Liberty Bell Controversy

It is quite another for a site synonymous with democracy and liberty to acknowledge explicitly the fundamental contradiction at the root of the American Revolution. Yet the admirable and dishonorable in American history are inter-twined—the past is an integrated reality. If slavery is engaged only at Civil War parks and plantation sites, not only is the broad reach of the peculiar institution underestimated, but a highly complex past is artificially divided into neat and mutually exclusive boxes. A historical perspective that denies the interconnection of issues and experiences provides poor preparation for life in a complex and contradictory present.4

Exhibits like Monticello and Independence Mall, and the complex stories they tell us about our own past are crucial to educating Americans, and preparing them for a ‘complex and contradictory present.’ These are the type of exhibits that the Federal Government should strive to create.


1. US Declaration of Independence

2.”Slavery at Jeffersons Monticello: Paradox of Liberty.” National Museum of American History. October 18, 2012. Accessed February 08, 2018.

3.Prager, Dennis. “Americas Accelerating Decay.” National Review. April 07, 2015. Accessed February 08, 2018.

4.Jill Ogline, “‘Creating Dissonance for the Visitor’: The Heart of the Liberty Bell Controversy.” The Public Historian 26.3 (Summer 2004), 55.