8. Dec, 2016


One of the most celebrated myths in literature concerns the American novelist Ernest Hemingway.
It is said that sometime in the 1920’s he was having lunch with other writers when he bet each of them, at ten dollars a head, that he could write a novel in six words. He then wrote something on a table napkin and passed it around. They all paid up without a murmur.
There is no doubt that versions of the novel existed before Hemingway’s. 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.”
However doubtful the novel’s provenance, nothing can detract from its dramatic brevity…

For Sale.
Baby’s shoes.
Never worn.

Its fascination of course lays in its unspoken implications, the questions that arise from them and the freedom of the reader to supply their own answers.
It is said that character+conflict=plot. In this case it can be presumed that the character is a single parent reduced to selling their dead child’s shoes to make ends meet. The conflict is supposed over having to make or not make such an emotive decision out of such dire necessity.
Next, what of the novel’s setting? Forgetting the early twentieth century American origin, the novel is timeless…2016, a single mother in a South London flat? 1916, a destitute widow who has just lost her man on The Somme? 1816, a wife who has just seen her partner transported to Australia for Luddite activity? 1716 A Scottish wife who lost her man in the Rising of the year before and then driven from their croft holding to make way for sheep?
With time and place settled, what of the mother’s appearance? What conflicts arose within the mother’s family should the child have been born out of wedlock? Did she live in an urban or a rural environment? What did the advert look like? Where would it have been posted? Presumably she had no other means of support so how did she otherwise manage? Had she always been poor or had she been wealthy and then reduced in circumstance due to her pregnancy? How and why?
Did she eventually sell the shoes or not? If not, why not and how did she cope?
Alternatively, could those lines have been found by a latter day Sherlock Holmes scrutinising the classified advertisement columns of a morning newspaper and seeing in them a coded message leading to the solution of a crime?
These are but a very small sample of the hundreds if not thousands of questions provoked by this novel.