January 31, 2013
For sale: a Hemingway story, never written
by Dustin Kurtz
It’s the iconic example of flash fiction, a story in six words, widely attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “For sale, baby shoes, never worn.”
It’s brilliant, almost a perfect short story. It’s also the sort of thing one hears just, around, not from any one book or person, necessarily. It’s like a folk tale of the MFA world. It’s the sort of story that invites admiration and demands imitation. The only thing it isn’t, as it turns out, is by Hemingway.
Over on his blog Quote Investigator, Garson O’Toole looked into the origins of the quote. It seems that Hemingway may have told the story at one point — Arthur C. Clarke attributes it to him. The version that appears in writing guides by Peter Miller has Hemingway winning a bet with the story.
But O’Toole tracks the story back to a few different U.S. newspaper items over the span of a few years in the early twentieth century, all predating any likely involvement by Hemingway.
An interesting precursor reflecting the idea and the compressed format of the short-short story was printed in 1917 in a periodical aimed at writers and editors called “The Editor”.” William R. Kane published a piece about striving for originality when creating short stories. He outlined a tale about a grief-stricken wife who lost her baby. Kane suggested using “”Little Shoes, Never Worn” as the title and as the key symbol of the narrative.
Not long after that point, according to O’Toole, the story is being cited pretty persistently, with varying attribution.
The great American dramatist will be the man or woman who can write a one-act play as poignant as a seven-word want ad which the Houston Post discovers: For Sale, a baby carriage; never used.
By the end of the twenties the story is so widespread, people are citing it as “the greatest story in the world.”
While it’s disappointing that the tale might not have originated with Hemingway, I still enjoy the idea that this strange little story — part parlor trick, part high modernism — could have just existed in the general consciousness, at a level defying authorship.
Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.