Ernest Hemingway? William R. Kane? Roy K. Moulton? Avery Hopwood? Arthur C. Clarke? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Most people are familiar with short stories, but there is another class of works that might be called short-short stories. “Flash fiction” and “sudden fiction” are labels that are applied to this style of literature. One of the most famous examples is a tale of only six words in the format of a classified advertisement that according to legend was crafted by Ernest Hemingway as part of a bet:
For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn
The reader must cooperate in the construction of the larger narrative that is obliquely limned by these words implying miscarriage or sudden infant death. There is a popular alternative text based on another item linked with babies:
For Sale, Baby Carriage, Never Used
Did Hemingway write either of these succinct telegraphic tales?
Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Ernest Hemingway composed this six word story. He died in 1961. A literary agent named Peter Miller stated that he was told the anecdote about Hemingway and baby shoes by a “well-established newspaper syndicator” circa 1974. Miller published this claim in the 1991 book “Get Published! Get Produced!: A Literary Agent’s Tips on How to Sell Your Writing”: 1
Apparently, Ernest Hemingway was lunching at Luchow’s with a number of writers and claimed that he could write a short story that was only six words long. Of course, the other writers balked. Hemingway told each of them to put ten dollars in the middle of the table; if he was wrong, he said, he’d match it. If he was right, he would keep the entire pot. He quickly wrote six words down on a napkin and passed it around; Papa won the bet. The words were “FOR SALE, BABY SHOES, NEVER WORN.” A beginning, a middle and an end!
Advertisements closely matching the abbreviated text above did appear in classified sections over the decades. Here is an example published in 1906. Intriguingly, this section of short ads was labeled: Terse Tales of the Town: 2
For sale, baby carriage; never been used. Apply at this office.
In 1910 a newspaper article about a classified advertisement that was thematically similar and twelve words long was published:
Baby’s hand made trousseau and baby’s bed for sale. Never been used.
The article referred to the death of the child, and the sorrow of the parents. The unnamed journalist emphasized that within the easily overlooked quotidian advertisement was “woven a little story of the heart”. The details of this important precursor are presented further below.
In 1917 an essay by William R. Kane in a publication for literary workers discussed the composition of powerful short stories. The concise title “Little Shoes, Never Worn” was suggested for a story about “a wife who has lost her baby”. The details of this key precursor are also given further below.
In 1921 the newspaper columnist Roy K. Moulton described an ad with the words: “Baby carriage for sale, never used”. Moulton presented the reaction of his friend Jerry:
Wouldn’t that make a wonderful plot for the movies?
Details appear further below. During this ideational evolution the name Hemingway was never mentioned. QI did not find any sharp natural demarcations in this development, and hence there does not appear to be a single author for this tale.
Here are selected citations in chronological order.
- 1991 Copyright, “Get Published! Get Produced!: A Literary Agent’s Tips on How to Sell Your Writing” by Peter Miller, Quote Page 27, Shapolsky Publishers, New York. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- 1906 April 28, Ironwood News Record, Terse Tales of the Town, Quote Page 5, Column 1, Ironwood, Michigan. (NewspaperArchive) ↩