Did Hemingway Really Write His Famous Six-Word Story?

Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 31 2013 12:58 PM

Did Hemingway Really Write His Famous Six-Word Story?

Ernest Hemingway

Photo by AFP/Getty Images

Quote Investigator is a terrific website that examines the provenance of popular quotations, which, as you may have noticed, frequently get misattributed online. On Monday, the site’s proprietor, Garson O’Toole, looked into a six-word fiction supposedly written by Ernest Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

David Haglund David Haglund

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

Hemingway’s authorship of the classified ad-inspired short-short story is frequently described as a “literary legend,” which, to be fair, is a perfectly accurate way of putting it. Snopes looked into the legend a few years ago, and decided that its basis in fact was “undetermined.” But after reading O’Toole’s more thorough investigation, it’s very hard to believe that Hemingway had anything to do with the tale.

Ernest Hemingway died in 1961, and the earliest published evidence known to QI connecting him to this tale appeared in 1991. The author Peter Miller included a version of the anecdote in his book Get Published! Get Produced!: A Literary Agent’s Tips on How to Sell Your Writing. Miller stated that he was told the tale by a “well-established newspaper syndicator” circa 1974.

The case for Hemingway does not get stronger from there. As O’Toole documents, the precursor to the story seems to be a 1921 newspaper column by Roy K. Moulton, who “printed a brief note that he attributed to someone named Jerry.”

There was an ad in the Brooklyn “Home Talk” which read, “Baby carriage for sale, never used.” Wouldn’t that make a wonderful plot for the movies?   

That note was reprinted in multiple newspapers. A few months later, LIFE published the following squib, citing the Louisville Carrier-Journal.

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.

O’Toole then traces the story through the 1920s—it made several more appearances, always using a carriage, not shoes—and then jumps ahead to the 1990s, when, after showing up in the self-help book mentioned above, it popped up elsewhere, too, now with the familiar image of shoes, rather than the arguably less evocative carriage, and attributed to Hemingway. Moulton also digs up a 1917 article from a magazine called The Editor, which suggested, as a title for a story about a mother who has lost her baby, “Little Shoes, Never Worn.”

Is that 1917 article, written by one William R. Kane, connected with the Hemingway legend as well? Perhaps. In any case, Kane seems a more likely “author” of the story than Hemingway is. And Moulton probably deserves the most credit, pending further evidence. Well, either Moulton or Jerry from Brooklyn. Or whoever was selling that baby carriage in 1921.


Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Republicans Like Scott Walker Are Building Campaigns Around Problems That Don’t Exist

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge

The World

Iran and the U.S. Are Allies

They’re just not ready to admit it yet.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Chief Justice John Roberts Says $1,000 Can’t Buy Influence in Congress. Looks Like He’s Wrong.

Farewell! Emily Bazelon on What She Will Miss About Slate.

  News & Politics
Sept. 16 2014 4:08 PM More Than Scottish Pride Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 1:27 PM The Veronica Mars Spinoff Is Just Amusing Enough to Keep Me Watching
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 1:48 PM Why We Need a Federal Robotics Commission
  Health & Science
Sept. 16 2014 4:09 PM It’s All Connected What links creativity, conspiracy theories, and delusions? A phenomenon called apophenia.
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.