Baby Shoes

Story Playlist 13: Baby Shoes

Ernest Hemingway: “Baby Shoes” (?) Mark Twain, quoting Pascal, once wrote in a letter to a friend, “My apologies for the length of this letter, but I didn’t have time to make it shorter.” It is indeed often more difficult to write shorter, as it requires more editing to clip away the extraneous branches until you are left with a streamlined creation. In this view, the best writers are the most concise, eschewing baroque phrases and paragraphs, removing anything that is not integral to the advancement of plot and character.

Ernest Hemingway is the preeminent example of minimalist fiction. His sentences are spare, adjectives hard to come by, his prose straightforward to the point of mockery. But it is clean, fast, honed, and hard to do as well as “Papa” did it, loading feeling and detail into each deliberate word. There are many fine examples of his good, clean prose, but none as distinctive as “Baby Shoes,” the world’s shortest really good short story—which may or may not have been written by Hemingway.

The story is so short that I can quote its entirety here: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” Six words tell a novel’s worth of back story, all of it “told” in the white space between the letters.

It is perhaps easiest to begin with “Baby shoes. Never worn.” What is implied by this amalgam of four floating words? A couple was pregnant, excitedly so, and purchased, or were given, baby shoes in anticipation of their child’s eventual use of them. As a new father, I know that shoes are not strictly necessary for babies until they begin to walk, or at least crawl, so we do not know whether the child died before birth, as in a miscarriage, or whether some time after birth; we can only surmise that the child never reached the age to wear the shoes. That alone is a powerful image, touching on a fear that strikes a universal chord in anyone who has ever been a parent, or who can imagine being a parent. The breathless excitement for nine months at the prospect of having a child (and this story suggests that it was the couple’s first child, since the shoes are not hand-me-downs) crashes against those inexorable words, “Never worn,” sounding so much like “nevermore” in their finality, suggesting a life snuffed out before it had a chance to begin.

The implied situation is absolutely devastating. Yet all that emotional turmoil lurks in the shadows behind four simple, undramatic words. We do not know if a couple placed the ad, or a single mother. But the fact of placing such an ad implies acceptance of the idea that this was the one shot to have a child, and that the opportunity will not come again. It might catch the mourning couple at a temporary moment of hopelessness, or it might reflect a hard decision suggesting hopelessness as a long-term emotional state. They will not keep the shoes, not even as a bittersweet souvenir of what might have been, and not to be passed on to another child in the family. They want the shoes gone, and with it, one imagines, the memory.

And so the other two words to be considered—“for sale”—are also loaded. The very fact that a couple would take the time to place an ad to sell the baby shoes suggests either they are desperate to be rid of all ties to the lost child, or, perhaps, that they are so desperate for money that they will sell even their sentimental keepsakes. We are not told which is the case, and are left to imagine a variety of scenarios, settling on whichever we find most suitable. The space left to our imaginations, always a far more fertile hunting ground if stimulated by skillful texts, is the true genius of this shortest of short stories.

Here we have a worthy predecessor to the recent trend in “flash fiction,” those short bursts of text written in one sitting and readable in a minute or so that try to contain a full story in miniature. What makes “Baby Shoes” novelistic is the implication that the characters, whom we never meet, have changed—and change is one of the basic requirements of a satisfying story. In six words, this story implies that the characters, once thrilled at the idea of having a child, have allowed the tragedy of the child’s premature death to change them—understandably, of course, and palpably. When the story takes place, when the couple writes the ad that is the six-word story, we understand that the change has already taken place, and we can imagine the state of the parents, before and after the tragedy. And, as with flash fiction, the story takes place in our reading of it: the ad and the story are one. We read the ad, we infer the story.

There is some mystery as to who actually wrote this shortest of short stories. It is popularly attributed to Hemingway, and it sounds appropriate that the master of streamlined prose should take his skill at suggestion and inference to this level. It’s said that Hemingway, at lunch at New York’s Algonquin Hotel (in an unspecified year), made a bet with his fellow diners that he could write a novel in only six words. At $10 a piece, his friends challenged him. Hemingway wrote the six-word story on a napkin and collected his winnings. It’s a neat story, and suits Papa’s legacy. But versions of “Baby Shoes” predate Hemingway in his prime.

A 1917 article in The Editor magazine, by William R. Kane, suggested a story about a woman who had lost her child, with a proposed title of “Little Shoes, Never Worn.” A 1921 satirical version of the idea appeared in Judge magazine and replaced baby shoes with a baby carriage. So, even before Hemingway was Hemingway, the story was around, and Hemingway—18 in 1917, the year he graduated high school and went to work at the Kansas City Star—was already interested enough in journalism and writing to have possibly heard of Kane’s suggestion. Whether or not Hemingway wrote it—on a napkin or anywhere—we might say he popularized it or finalized it, and that “Baby Shoes” became better-known, once linked to his name. To me, the story sounds like Hemingway, after having downed a good quart of aged, minimalist whiskey.

Sometimes the legend feels more right than documented history permits.