Jim Laird's anger and bitterness are closely connected to Willa Cather's signature themes: The plight of the gifted artist in conflict with pettiness and social preference for convention, and the yearning of the sensitive, artistic person within a society that is
a desert of newness and ugliness and sordidness, for all that is chastened and old, and noble with traditions.
It is appalling to Steavens, the young artist who accompanies the coffin of his master to the rough Western town where the sculptor grew up, that there is no understanding of Harvey Merrick other than that from Jim Laird. At the wake, the men speak of trivial things and buiness matters. After the family retires, the G. A. R. man who was at the station asks if there will be a will. The others laugh and deprecate Harvey as having taken everything from the family for his education rather than staying home and tending the farm for his father.
"Harve never was too much account for anything practical, and he sure was never fond of work" began the coal and lumber dealer.
The Grand Army man remembers how Harvey let cows founder in a cornfield because he lost track of them as he watches the sun set across the marshes. His head was always "full of nonsense," observes Phelps. "What Harve needed...was a course in some...business college." Amazed by this banal conversation and measuring of Harvey Merrick by such mundane standards, Steavens wonders that the men do not realize that their western Kansas town is only known in the East because it is the birthplace of such a great artist.
Amidst this petty conversation of what he calls "sick, side-tracked, burnt-dog, land-poor sharks," Jim Laird begins his vituperation of the stultifying town from which Harvey Merrick had to flee because he was an artist whose "soul [they] couldn't dirty and whose hands [they] couldn't tie." Harvey, he contends, was superior to these "disappointed strugglers in a bitter, dead little western town." Laird points to all the pettiness and corruption of the pillars of the community, men for whom he has become a "shyster." Like Harvey he held noble dreams, but they were destroyed when he returned to Sand City.
After listening to Laird, Steavens now understands the odd look and bitter smile that would sometimes cross Merrick's face. For, he recalled his terrible yearnings of youth in which he was so misunderstood. In addition, Merrick's return to Sand City reminds Laird painfully of his having "sold-out" his own principles--no palm leaf can ever rest upon his coffin.
Well, we know that he is bitter because he drinks, but we don't know why he drinks.