Did Hemingway really write Baby Shoes? The legend of the six word story
Last week in a post about flash fiction resources I mentioned Ernest Hemingway’s famous six word story “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.” I added that he is supposed to have called it his best work.
Jacqueline Pye commented that she seemed to remember first hearing ‘the Hemingway’ ages ago when someone pinched it to win a short-lived comp on radio 4 and she thought that doubts seem to have been raised about whether Hemingway actually wrote it.
So, I thought I would track down the truth behind the legend through the wonders of Google. First BBC Radio Four. They did indeed run a competition back in February 2008 where entrants had to define their lives in six words and some of the entries make pretty sad reading such as these two:
Foetus, son, brother, husband, father, vegetable.
Wrong era ,Wrong Class, Wrong Gender.
But this is rather nice.
Head in books, feet in flowers.
You can read them all HERE
No mention of being fooled by someone pretending that Hemingway’s story was theirs and it seems unlikely because the very first item on the site is the story that Hemingway won $10 back in the 1920s when he bet friends that he could write a complete story in just six words.
So far so good, but did Hemingway actually write Baby Shoes?
I could pretend that I spent hours conducting intensive online research but a wonderful website called Quote Investigator devoted to unearthing who said what has travelled that road already. You can read their detailed findings HERE but basically the jury is still out. The story about the bet first appeared in print only in 1991in a book written by an American literary agent who said that he first heard the story back in the 70s. The story has been repeated a lot in the last 20 years but what about before that?
The People at Quote Investigator are thorough. They found a small ad in a Michigan local newspaper with almost the same words published in 1906. Four years later another newspaper revealed the heartache behind the following advert:- Baby’s hand made trousseau and baby’s bed for sale. Never been used.
In 1917 and 1921 newspaper articles referred to this kind of ad as being the perfect plot for a short story or film script. There are more references like this which establish that the idea was out there, floating around. Maybe Hemingway picked it up – consciously or subconsciously. I know from my own days on a newspaper that small ads are often scanned in the hope they will make a news story or produce an idea for a feature. Hemingway was born in 1899 so I think we can assume that he wasn’t inspired at the age of seven by the Michigan advert, but it is also probably safe to say that this idea wasn’t original to him. If he did use it, no first hand account has been left of his writing the story from either the circle of gambling friends or from EH himself – unless Quote Investigator have missed something which I personally doubt.
It looks like Baby Shoes isn’t so much a work of literature as an urban myth
Like the picture? Me and Ernie chilling in Havana
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Fascinating post. The web links are also useful. It looks like the idea was around as a sad tale before being written in six words. But someone wrote it as a story, and IMHO it’s brilliant, whoever did it and wherever they got the idea.
Thanks and The Quote Investigator is a brilliant site!
Enjoyed this and will remember that site. Thanks for posting! S x
Glad you liked it
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A similar small ad crops up in Lucia Berlin’s story Angel’s Laundromat, “I read all the signs. GOD GIVE ME THE COURAGE. NEW CRIB NEVER USED – BABY DIED”.