Urban Legends

I think I accidentally started an urban legend. My bad.

The book ban that never was

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I'm flattered, maybe even a little curious.
Dr. Seuss

During Banned Books Week last month, you may have heard that some busybodies banned Green Eggs and Ham because they thought the story was kinda gay. Metro reported that this happened "briefly in the 1990s because of supposed homosexual innuendos." A Minnesota radio station said the book was targeted for its "homosexual theme." Feministe announced that it had been challenged in California for, "No shit, 'homosexual seduction' on the part of Sam." Many other outlets have related the same story, not just last month but in years past. In 2013, Dr. Seuss' classic even made its way into the Oberlin Public Library's banned books display. "Inside the bright orange book," a local paper reported, a "slip explains that it was once thought to have 'homosexual seduction,' because Sam tried to seduce his friend."

None of these reports say where or when this purported prohibition took place, other than those vague references to California and the '90s. A Lexis-Nexis search turned up nothing. I asked the American Library Association, which sponsors Banned Books Week and keeps track of such things, if they were aware of such an effort; they told me it wasn't in their database. Metro said it got its info from a book called Seuss Facts, which as far as I can tell does not exist—though a Facebook feed by that name did mention the alleged ban without citing a source. I got in touch with some of the other reporters and bloggers who had repeated the story. None of them were certain where it came from. After I contacted BuzzFeed's Spencer Althouse, who included Green Eggs in a banned-books list last year, he concluded that the story was "a terrible, terrible rumor" and added a correction to his article. I'm open to the possibility that there's a real event here that I haven't been able to track down, but that seems extremely doubtful.

Besides, I'm pretty sure I know where this began. It's my fault. Sorry. My bad.

Way back in 2002, I wrote a satiric Banned Books Week column that mocked the nation's prigs by suggesting they try to pull something new off the nation's school shelves. The article then devolved into me decoding the supposed sexual subtexts in Treasure Island and, yes, Green Eggs and Ham. Dr. Seuss' book, I wrote,

is a thinly disguised account of homosexual seduction. In this kiddie favorite, "Sam I Am" (that is, "Same As I Am") tries to persuade the narrator to "eat" green eggs and ham. Anyone who has traveled in the Spanish-speaking world knows what "eggs" are. The ham, of course, is a long, phallic sausage, perfect for "porking" someone. The protagonist repeatedly denies any interest in the offer, but Sam persists, proposing that he join him in any number of locations, positions, and kinky arrangements. ("Would you, could you, on a boat? Would you, could you, with a goat?") Finally, our hero gives in, just once—and discovers that he enjoys fellating breakfast after all. Sam has made a convert, and the legion of God-Fearing Heterosexuals is diminished by one.

When I first read that Green Eggs had been banned somewhere, I worried that some literal-minded puritan had taken me seriously and launched a crusade. That doesn't seem to have happened. But phrases from my piece have turned up in several accounts of the legendary Green Eggs ban, and one article actually links to my old column to back up its claims, apparently unaware that I was making a joke. It's true that I never claimed that this ban actually happened anywhere, so those references to California and the '90s didn't come from me. But The Lorax, another Seuss book, really has faced parental opposition in California; and an alleged Green Eggs ban in China reportedly ended in 1991. Both of those factlets were mentioned in some of the same articles that claimed a gay-hating Grundy had tried to keep kids from reading Green Eggs and Ham. I suspect that at some point in the chain of transmission, those different elements got mixed up.

Someone once said that if a spooky legend catches on, it says something true about the anxieties of the people who believe and repeat the tale, even if it says absolutely nothing true about the subject of the story itself. My yarn may be more funny than scary—that's what I was aiming for, anyway—but the idea that people would prohibit a harmless children's book is still pretty frightening. And it's not hard to imagine what underlying worries might be at work here.

Many educated elites live in fear of Bible-thumping troglodytes haunting the hinterlands, some great redneck beast slouching towards Washington to make Sarah Palin president. Book-banning stories are tailor made to fit that terror. Palin herself had to deal with rumors in 2008 that she had tried to fire a librarian who wouldn't remove reams of offensive texts from the shelves. The Guardian once ran an Amanda Marcotte editorial under the headline "The Tea Party moves to ban books." The editorial contained exactly zero examples of Tea Partiers trying to ban anything.

There really are crusaders out there whose fear of demons leads them to try to suppress speech. Just ask the American Library Association. But there are also people whose fear of demons leads them to imagine book bonfires where none exist.