Not in Kansas Anymore

Learned Vol. 2, Issue 10

I first read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz when I was around nine or ten. It had a lot of great company in my head at that time - John Christopher's White Mountains, Ray Bradbury's Mars, and Lloyd Alexander's Prydain had all claimed serious real estate in my mental atlas by then - but what stood out about Oz to me was that it was so nonsensical. It was, and is, literally fantastic. Nothing makes sense, anything can happen, and everything is accepted. It's damned close to my version of Heaven*.

But that’s not the most popular version of the story. Far, far more people are more familiar with the 1939 MGM movie featuring Judy Garland than they are with L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel. There’s nothing wrong with that, that’s more or less the life-cycle of all great works - the story changes mediums and adapts to the times and in this way lives forever. We should all be so lucky.

Among the many changes made in the process of filming was the addition of the line, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” That line has morphed to become an entire category of idiomatic phrases centering around “not in Kansas.”

Idiom, by definition, means a phrase or sentence that has taken on a meaning beyond what can be understood from its purely literal use. Idioms often pre-suppose a knowledge of their source material but many have become so far removed from their origins that knowledge of the source is no longer necessary to understand the idiom. That’s mostly true in this case.

In the Matrix, Cypher says, "It means buckle your seatbelt, Dorothy, 'cause Kansas is going bye-bye." I’d argue that lots of people have seen the Matrix and enjoyed that particular quip without ever having seen or read anything about Oz.

But, here's another bumper sticker I loved back in my prematurely cynical youth: Auntie Em, hate you, hate Kansas, taking the dog. Dorothy.

As kiss-offs go, that's pretty good. As a cultural reference, it’s great. As an idiom…well, it needs a lot of background knowledge to make its point.

But there’s something more at work here:

In the movie, when Dorothy tells Toto she doesn't think they're in Kansas anymore, she means just that - she believes that she and Toto have been physically transported away from the state of Kansas to somewhere else. But, in the course of becoming an idiom, the phrase acquired a strong metaphorical bent. (It had to, otherwise it would have a single use-case only applicable whenever one found oneself leaving Kansas!)

The American rock band The National have just released a new record. Track 10 is called “Not in Kansas.” From Genius.com’s contributors:

The line is often quoted in situations where someone finds him/herself on unfamiliar ground, like the character Dorothy felt when she was transported into the world of Oz and uttered the iconic line.

That’s as good an explanation as any as to what, exactly the idiom means, but, as a teacher, this is one of the most frustrating kind of idioms to teach; it requires a specific set of references to understand exactly why leaving one's comfort zone or place of zen or whatever, is referred to as leaving Kansas. Not least among these requirements is that Kansas is a place.

So, all that said, why does it persist so well? How many people who have made a quip or reference to the idiom have actually spent any amount of time in Kansas? Or is that the point? I've been to Kansas a few times. I don't really remember it.

Collectively, we've decided that Dorothy’s feeling of Kansas as home is an apt metaphor for all of us. Whenever we branch out, whenever we find ourselves away from home base, we are away from our individual Kansases. Whether we’ve left on a storm, like Dorothy, or via our own two-feet matters little. What’s important is that we have an awareness of having left and conversely, perhaps, gained a goal of getting back. After all, there’s no place like home.


*Seriously, nobody dies, animals can talk, and every problem can be solved by going on a road trip.

“Not in Kansas”

Origins:

In the 1939 version of "The Wizard of Oz," Dorothy Gale speaks the line, "Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore." It's worth noting that the line does not appear in either of L. Frank Baum's first two OZ books, from which the movie is (mainly) adapted. Over a dozen screenwriter’s are credited with work on the film; I couldn’t find a reference definitively stating who wrote that particular line, but, suffice to say that is original to the film.

Definitions:

Idioms.freedictionary.com:

To no longer be in a place that one knows or where one is comfortable; to be in a completely unfamiliar and/or discomfiting environment.

Yourdictionary.com:

Adjective

(idiomatic, colloquial, US) No longer in quiet and comfortable surroundings As soon as I walked into that party I thought, "I'm not in Kansas anymore."

Notable Events of the Year 1939

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The Apocrypha of Oz

L. Frank Baum wrote fourteen Oz books; after his death, the books were continued by a string of authors, including those of Ruth Plumly Thompson. While Thompson’s books are considered canonical by fans, there are dozens of other “apocryphal” novels, movies, plays, screenplays, comics, and other adaptations and continuations available.

It’s worth noting that all these adaptations are, for the most part, legal because the copyright has run out on the original novels placing the characters and settings into the public domain. The apocrypha is also a strong argument for revising copyright law to allow more works into public domain more often.

Here are a few of the more notable examples:

  • The Russian Oz Books - Alexander Volkov began by translating some of Baum’s works into Russian. In the process, he transformed them so thoroughly that they became something else entirely.

  • Hungry Tiger Press - A small press publisher dedicated to bringing new and classic Oz works to the world.

  • The Grandmasters - Both Philip Jose Farmer and Robert Heinlein used Oz as parts of their works. PJF in A Barnstormer in Oz, and RH in The Number of the Beast. Both are notable for being science-fiction versions of Oz, rather than pure fantasy.

  • Wicked - and its sequels is largely responsible for bringing non-canonical Oz (back to) the forefront of U.S. pop-culture. Prior to the stage production (which eclipsed the novels much as the 1939 movie did its originator) Oz had been pretty much relegated to classic movie status.

  • Return to Oz - 1985 Disney movie responsible for scaring the crap out of a generation of kids with the wheelers. Also, a killer Scissor Sisters song.

  • Lost in Oz - 2015 kids’ t.v. program I like watching with my daughter.

  • Goodbye Yellow Brick Road - ‘nuff said.

Next Time: How you doin’? That’s it. Stay strong, stay curious. Learn something.