E. Annie Proulx’s ‘‘The Half-Skinned Steer’’ was first published in the Atlantic Monthly in November 1997. It was originally written at the invitation of the Nature Conservancy, which asked Proulx to visit one of its preserves and then contribute a story, inspired by her visit, to Off the Beaten Path (1998), an anthology of short fiction. This assignment also inspired Proulx to write Close Range: Wyoming Stories (1999), in which the story was included. By the time it was published, Proulx was already famous for another collection of short stories and three novels, including The Shipping News (1993), which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Like many of Proulx’s works, ‘‘The Half-Skinned Steer’’ features gritty realism in a harsh, natural setting.
‘‘The Half-Skinned Steer’’ concerns Mero, an eighty-three-year-old man who left his family’s ranch sixty years earlier and who must face his past when he is called back to attend his brother’s funeral. The story examines human mortality, the power of memory to affect one’s life, and the inevitability of fate.
The particularly graphic cattle-slaughter scenes in the story recall the brutality of Chicago’s stockyards in Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, The Jungle. Proulx’s story was written in the mid-to late 1990s, when the prospect of diseased beef led to fear of the so-called mad cow disease in the United States, as well as to a lawsuit involving popular talk-show host Oprah Winfrey. The 1990s were also a decade in which the government, nutritionists, and even individual consumers reexamined the long-held belief that meat is an essential part of one’s diet. ‘‘The Half-Skinned Steer’’ was included in the The Best American Short Stories 1998 and The Best American Short Stories of the Century, which were published by Houghton Mifflin in paperback in 1998 and 2000, respectively.