A piercingly dark piece of writing, taking the heart of a Dickens or Dostoevsky novel and carving away all the rest, Ernest Hemingway’s six-word story—fabled forerunner of flash- and twitter-fiction—is shorter than many a story’s title:
For sale, Baby shoes, Never worn.
The extreme terseness in this elliptical tragedy has made it a favorite example of writing teachers over the past several decades, a display of the power of literary compression in which, writes a querent to the site Quote Investigator, “the reader must cooperate in the construction of the larger narrative that is obliquely limned by these words.” Supposedly composed sometime in the ’20s at The Algonquin (or perhaps Luchow’s, depending on whom you ask), the six-word story, it’s said, came from a ten-dollar bet Hemingway made at a lunch with some other writers that he could write a novel in six words. After penning the famous line on a napkin, he passed it around the table, and collected his winnings. That’s the popular lore, anyway. But the truth is much less colorful.
In fact, it seems that versions of the six-word story appeared long before Hemingway even began to write, at least as early as 1906, when he was only 7, in a newspaper classified section called “Terse Tales of the Town,” which published an item that read, “For sale, baby carriage, never been used. Apply at this office.” Another, very similar, version appeared in 1910, then another, suggested as the title for a story about “a wife who has lost her baby,” in a 1917 essay by William R. Kane, who thought up “Little Shoes, Never Worn.” Then again in 1920, writes David Haglund in Slate, the supposed Hemingway line appears in 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.” Would that make a wonderful plot for the movies?
Many more examples of the narrative device abound, including a 1927 comic strip describing a seven-word version—“For Sale, A Baby Carriage; Never Used!”—as “the greatest short story in the world.” The more that Haglund and Quote Investigator’s Garson O’Toole looked into the matter, the harder they found it to “believe that Hemingway had anything to do with the tale.”
It is possible Hemingway, wittingly or not, stole the story from the classifieds or elsewhere. He was a newspaperman after all, perhaps guaranteed to have come into contact with some version of it. But there’s no evidence that he wrote or talked about the six-word story, or that the lunch bet at The Algonquin ever took place. Instead, it appears that a literary agent, Peter Miller, made up the story whole cloth in 1974 and later published it in his 1991 book, Get Published! Get Produced!: A Literary Agent’s Tips on How to Sell Your Writing.
The legend of the bet and the six-word story grew: Arthur C. Clarke repeated it in a 1998 Reader’s Digest essay, and Miller mentioned it again in a 2006 book. Meanwhile, suspicions arose, and the final debunking occurred in a 2012 scholarly article in The Journal of Popular Culture by Frederick A. Wright, who concluded that no evidence links the six-word story to Hemingway.
So should we blame Miller for ostensibly creating an urban legend, or thank him for giving competitive minimalists something to beat, and inspiring the entire genre of the “six-word memoir”? That depends, I suppose, on what you think of competitive minimalists and six-word memoirs. Perhaps the moral of the story, fitting in the Twitter age, is that the great man theory of authorship so often gets it wrong; the most memorable stories and ideas can arise spontaneously, anonymously, from anywhere.