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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Baby shoes

by Philip Martin | October 4, 2022 at 4:41 a.m.


The legend is that Ernest Hemingway once bet a table full of literary types that he could write a complete short story that was only six words long.

As recounted in literary agent Peter Miller's 1991 book "Get Published! Get Produced!: A Literary Agent's Tips on How to Sell Your Writing," Hemingway was having lunch at Luchow's, the famous deli on 14th Street in Manhattan's East Village (in later editions Miller changed the venue to the Algonquin) with several publishers, when he informed the table he could perform the feat. It wouldn't be much of a story if they hadn't doubted him, so they each bet him $10 he couldn't.

So Papa scribbled a line on a napkin and passed it around. Nobody argued he hadn't won the bet.

The complete story?

"For sale, baby shoes, never worn."

It's a great anecdote which almost certainly never happened. Surely the New York literary professionals weren't so naive that they didn't know to hide their wallets whenever someone bets to do something that sounds impossible.

Miller said he heard the story from a "well-established newspaper syndicator" in the 1970s. The folks at quoteinvestigator.com however, say they've never found any "substantive evidence" Hemingway wrote the six-word story. They did find an actual ad that ran in an Ironwood, Mich., newspaper in 1906 that read: "For sale, baby carriage; never been used. Apply at this office."

They also noted a 1910 Spokane, Wash., newspaper article about a classified ad that read: "Baby's hand-made trousseau and baby's bed for sale. Never been used."

Then there was an essay by William Kane in the 1917 journal The Editor that called for a certain conciseness and concreteness in short fiction. As an example, Kane offered "a story of a wife who has lost her baby, her only possible one, and her grief removes her from the world, and even threatens to estrange her from her husband. Evidently much of her struggle toward normality will be a mental one; the crisis of her struggle certainly will be mental. To bring the story 'down-to-the-ground,' there must be some concrete symbol of the struggle and the wife's victory.

"Suppose this symbol is a pair of 'little shoes, never worn.' The title of the story might be 'Little Shoes, Never Worn.' The victory of the wife, her gain to normality, might be symbolized by the giving away of this pair of shoes, over which she has often wept, to a needy babe of another mother. The story I have outlined inclines to the sentimental, but I think it proves my point."

Quoteinvestigator.com goes on to cite several more instances where a close relative of the six-word short story appears. So even if the Hemingway anecdote is true it seems unlikely the story was original with Hemingway.

But the story sounds like Hemingway, or like a parody of Hemingway. It's a terse understatement, carrying an unsentimental yet potent dose of heartbreak. (Other interpretations are possible. Maybe Amazon mis-delivered a package. When this happens to us, they usually tell us to keep the item.) Hemingway ought to have written it.

And despite the best efforts of quoteinvestigator.com, I imagine it will continue to be attributed to Hemingway. I've heard it described as his "greatest short story."

This shouldn't bother us too much as long as we understand the general tendency to "print the legend" and that history is more like interpretive dance than nuclear physics. After a while we lose sight of the historical Hemingway, and the story of the six-word short story becomes a kind of parable.

But the lesson of the parable isn't that Hemingway had a gift for distilling language down to its high-proof essence; it's that we are the pattern-seeking animal and that we're able to extrapolate those six words into a full-course drama. It's the readers of the story who are doing the work, not the quasi-anonymous author.

We don't need the details. We can imagine them.

I think about this when I read obituaries.

I don't know when I started reading the obituaries regularly, or when the occasional practice became habitual. Along with the sports section and the comics, it's part of a daily ritual. You might think it morbid, but it's not uncommon among my cohort. I used to pay a lot of attention to the divorces filed and made final, probably because I was likely to see names I recognized in that column.

I now see more recognizable names in the obituaries. And sometimes I see people, whose full names and backstories I never knew, there. More than once I've come across someone I played golf with once, or with whom I'd had an email exchange or conversation. Someone with whom I'd crossed paths but couldn't begin to pretend to know.

Someone who, more than likely, didn't know anything about me other than the name I offer or my byline.

This is OK; there are a lot of us out here in the world, milling about and bumping into each other. You don't need to form a covalent bond with every atom you run into. But it's comforting to know there are others experiencing more or less the same world. Everybody's journey is different, but we all end up in the same place.

That's comforting, as is the fact that these obituaries exist, and that from the few lines that someone who loved them took time to set down, we can extrapolate a universe of feeling and experience. While we might be bemused by some of the elevated and clumsy rhetoric that slips into obits, and we might be disconcerted by the elision of a cause of death, an obituary means to remind us that the deceased mattered.

Sometimes I read the obituaries and think about the people who died who didn't get obituaries. They only grazed our planet or missed it completely. Baby shoes, never worn--I go back and forth on whether that's genuinely sad or not.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at pmartin@adgnewsroom.com.


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