Baby Shoes, Who Cares?

Last week I received an interesting and well thought out e-mail from Simon Thalmann regarding Hemingway's six-word story. In fact, the e-mail was so interesting and well thought out that, with Simon's permission, I'm going to reprint a good chunk of it here:

I've been thinking a lot lately about the "For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn" piece by Hemingway lately in light of one of your recent posts, and while it struck me as intriguing when I first heard the story as an undergrad I can't help but wonder now, as a father myself some years later: Do you think the piece would be worth anything had it not been Hemingway who wrote it?

Again, while initially the short may seem tragic, a simple second look show it's actually quite, well, boring, for lack of a better word. For truly, what does the fact that a pair of baby shoes haven't been worn really say? It doesn't say anything. Anything inferred says more about the reader than the story. For instance, my wife and I are headed to a "Mom to Mom" sale tomorrow where people sell all their baby stuff. I imagine quite a bit of it will have signs saying "Never worn." Does that mean all their babies were killed or stillborn or that there was some tragedy to speak of that kept their babies feet uncovered? Absolutely not. It just means they were never worn.

Incidentally, I'm not sure how it was in Hemingway's day but now new parents are deluged with gifts at the birth of a child, and shoes -- especially if you get multiple pair -- are practically worthless. You may try a pair on the baby to see how they look once or twice, but the fact is they grow so fast and the shoes are such a hassle to deal with and serve no purpose that I imagine the majority of baby shoes could actually be considered "Never worn."

Additionally, if "Never used" were always taken to imply tragedy, the classified section would be the most depressing part of the newspaper.

All this is to say I hope Hemingway really didn't consider this his best work. "For Whom the Bell Tolls," "Green Hills of Africa," and his short stories at least count for something.

Simon brings up a lot of good points. I'd addressed them quickly in my reply via e-mail, but want to go more in-depth here.

For starters, no, I do not believe the six-word story would be so highly regarded if it had been written by anybody other than Hemingway (or a writer of Hemingway's stature). Sure, if some lesser known writer had come up with the story, it probably would circulate around writers' circles, but it wouldn't be held is such high esteem (and SMITH Magazine wouldn't be nearly as popular as it is). But this happens all the time. Take The Road, for instance. I can't imagine that book not only being one of Oprah's picks but also winning the Pulitzer Prize if it had been written by anyone else but Cormac McCarthy. The man has gotten to the point in his career where he can pretty much write anything and people will think it's a masterpiece.

As I've mentioned here before, the greatest strength of Hint Fiction is also its greatest weakness, in which the effectiveness of the story replies heavily on a reader's own life experience. So yes, Hemingway's story could be taken many different ways, not all of them so dark. In fact, when I student taught I used this story to teach inference, and one of the students suggested that maybe the baby had been born without legs. Well ... not the most likely reason, but plausible.

Still, I think it's simply human nature to view things negatively, so when someone sees that story, they instantly think stillborn and death.

Finally, we need to keep in mind that there is no written account anywhere that says Hemingway is in fact the true author of that story. It's all legend, just as the fact he claimed it was his greatest work is legend. But say he did write the story, and he did claim it was his greatest work. I'd have to side with him. Because back in Hemingway's day, nothing like a six-word story had been done before. Sure, people had written novels and short stories, but a six-word story? If he did indeed write it (and I'm inclined to believe he did), then he was in fact the very first person to do so. So yeah, considering that it was such a new and innovative way of storytelling, I'd have to agree that it could be considered his greatest work.

But of course that's just me. Simon, like I said, raised some really good points. What do you think?