Mark Twain: The Facts in the Great Beef Contract

Ad Hoc Short Story Week featuring Mark Twain: Day Two

Mark Twain’s short story “The Facts in the Great Beef Contract” gives the impression of an exaggerated fable, a tall-tale perhaps.  The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized how much it was like a fairy-tale.

Mark Twain

Mark Twain’s fictionalized version of himself tells the story that begins with John Wilson Mackenzie, of Rotterdam, Chemung County, New Jersey.  Mackenzie obtains a contract to sell 100 barrels of beef to the United States Government – William Sherman to be exact. While Wilson chases Sherman all over the world in an attempt to deliver the beef (and get paid), he is unable to actually catch up with him.  Prior to being scalped and having his beef stolen, Mackenzie draws up a contract to bill the government.  Each person to receive this contract subsequently dies until it reaches the hands of Mark Twain’s fictionalized version of himself.  The narrator seeks out one government official after another only to get the same answer: this official doesn’t deal with beef contracts, someone else does.

I found it incredibly funny to put government bureaucracy in the place of a “kingdom” from a fairy-tale.  In addition, hilarity ensued when one man attempts a great “quest” in trying to get paid by the government.  In many fairy-tales, questors, after much difficulty, obtains their reward.  Unfortunately, this story doesn’t follow the fairy-tale mode that closely.

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