“One Reader Writes” was published in 1933 as part of Ernest Hemingway’s third short story collection, Winner Take Nothing. The collection includes eight stories that had previously been published in magazines and six new pieces, of which “One Reader Writes” is one. The collection also includes Hemingway's very popular “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”
The story occurs in three parts. The first part sets the scene of a woman sitting at a table in front of a newspaper and writing a letter. The second takes the form of the letter she is writing to a doctor with a medical column in the newspaper, and the third gives more of her thoughts. Each section is only a paragraph long.
The unnamed woman writes to the doctor to ask whether she ought to live with her husband, an army soldier, again. The year after she was married, he was sent to his station in Shanghai. Now it is three years later, and she has learned that he contracted syphilis while abroad. Afraid to tell her parents because her father believes those who contract syphilis “could well wish themselves dead” and afraid to believe her husband who tells her there will be no danger after treatment, she writes to the doctor from the newspaper instead.
The woman appears to be mostly afraid for herself: both whether it is safe for her to resume sexual relations with her husband and whether it is right for her to do so. She senses the stigma associated with it—brought to the fore by her repetition of the word “malady”—even as she is not disturbed by her husband’s infidelity. Part of the reason why she consults a doctor she does not know is her sense of shame. Hemingway also could be commenting on the education level of the readers of newspaper doctors. The first paragraph, which describes the woman sitting with a newspaper open in front of her and writing steadily and easily, suggests that she is both a reader and an accomplished writer. However, her letter, with spelling errors and little punctuation, shows otherwise.
According to the Kansas City Star, Hemingway got ideas for several of his short stories from Logan Clendening, a Kansas City doctor whom Hemingway met in 1931. Clendening gave Hemingway six letters from correspondents of his syndicated medical column. One was from a woman in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, whose husband had contracted syphilis in Shanghai. The Star asserts that Hemingway turned the letter into “One Reader Writes” with only “minor alterations.” Accordingly, it is considered by literary critics to be one of Hemingway’s least successful short stories.