Many of Cather’s early stories probe in a highly self-conscious manner the relationship between the artist and society. Despite her own statement that the world was tired of stories about artists, Cather returned to the subject over and over again, indicating clearly her passionate concern with it. In “The Sculptor’s Funeral,” the clash of values between Harvey Merrick, the artist figure, and the inhabitants of the frontier town to which he returns only in death, is absolute. Only by escaping to the East, representative of older, more civilized traditions and values, has Merrick been able to achieve artistic fulfillment, and even then the fulfillment is premised on a total sacrifice of self.
For Cather, the artist represents everything that is beautiful and noble in terms of human endeavor, and yet artistic achievement is seldom acknowledged or even recognized by ordinary people. In the case of Harvey Merrick, the ultimate irony lies in the failure of the artist’s own family and fellow citizens to understand the value of his art. Life is too harsh and demanding in the primitive conditions engendered by pioneer society, to support anything except a crass materialism that blights any appreciation for the creative spirit. Although Cather came to believe later that she had been overly harsh in her condemnation of western society in this story, the intensity of her commitment to art and her desire to defend its value against the encroachment of vulgar materialism remained with her during her entire life.