This is known as Ernest Hemingway's shortest and most tragic story, but did he really write it?
One of the golden rules for writing short stories is Edgar Allan Poe's “single sitting” rule, which appears in his analysis of The Raven. According to him, a literary work that can be read in one sitting preserves the immediacy of its effects. On the contrary, if the reader takes a break from the read, it loses its effect because “the affairs of the world interfere,” in other words, you get distracted by real life. That’s why the ideal short story should be simple yet compelling.
Decades after Poe came up with this rule, Ernest Hemingway apparently took the advice to heart in a masterful way and created short stories with a straightforward language that to this day have a powerful effect on millions of readers around the world. Perhaps the greatest example of his abilities is his shortest story, which might also be the most tragic story he ever wrote:
“For sale: Baby shoes, never worn”
There you go, that’s the shortest piece of fiction attributed to Hemingway. Not even the best tweet in the world could top the way this text manages to tell a whole story in just a few words. In this case, it’s up to the reader to fill the gaps in the plot: what’s the reason behind this ad? Why were those shoes never worn? Although there's no answer, the tragedy is there. However, the mystery surrounding the story is as interesting as the lack of verified information about the writing of this text, which has led to the creation of a legend about the story.
This piece was allegedly written sometime in the nineteen twenties at the Algonquin hotel in New York, where Hemingway made a ten-dollar bet with other writers to see who could write the shortest and most compelling story. As the story goes, after writing it down on a napkin, Hemingway let the other writers read his story as he collected the money he had won. If this story is true, it’s no wonder why many think this is the best example of Hemingway’s genius.
However, as it often happens, the truth behind the story is less exciting but more controversial. First, although it's true that there was a circle of intellectuals that met at the Algonquin, there aren’t official records or witnesses of the bet in which Hemingway was said to participate, and the few witnesses tell different versions. Also, there are two possible sources that resemble the structure and content of the text and came out before his story. The first one comes from a 1917 essay by William R. Kane where he writes “Little Shoes, Never Worn,” which would be an excellent title for a story about a woman who lost her baby. The other one can be traced back to an ad in a 1906 newspaper saying, “For sale, baby carriage, never been used. Apply at this office.”
After reading these two sources, the story definitely loses its magic. However, the real issue is that for many years Hemingway worked as a journalist, so he was familiar with this type of ads and that style of writing. That’s what has led many scholars to question if this short story could be considered a form of plagiarism or if this piece has any literary value at all. What makes Hemingway’s text a literary masterpiece and not just a short ad? Where’s the line between finding inspiration in a text and copying it? The answer to these questions, although subjective, has to do with the creation of the legend behind the story.
Even though there isn't reliable information about where this story comes from, its diffusion and that of the legend have something in common: Peter Miller, a literary agent who wrote down this story in his book Get Published! Get Produced!: A Literary Agent’s Tips on How to Sell Your Writing. Ironically, Miller became the living example of the premise of his book’s title, because he managed to sell that story about Hemingway’s shortest fiction to audiences all over the world, without actually having any sources or proofs that it was true. What writer wouldn’t love to have an agent like Miller?
This answers the question of plagiarism and Hemingway’s story. If that legend didn’t happen, then there’s no reason to accuse him, right? Nonetheless, it still makes us think about what we consider literature. Because in the end, the text, no matter who wrote it, does have the effect that Poe established as a golden rule of short stories, and it also has the ability to feed our need to fill the gaps in mysterious stories. Maybe in the end this story shows that there isn’t a real division between literature and the best ads we’ve seen out there, and if there is one, it isn’t unmovable or definitive. In fact, the greatest source of inspiration for a literary masterpiece might be right in front of us, and we might not even know it.
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Cover art by Lovetta Reyes-Cairo