What does Steavens notice is different about the red-bearded lawyer from the others at the funeral in "The Sculptor's Funeral"?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Henry Steavens notices that the red-bearded lawyer, Jim Laird, is the only man who genuinely appreciates the talent and understands the merit of the sculptor, Harvey Merrick.

Not long after he arrives in Sand City and is taken to the Merrick home, the devoted protégé of the sculptor realizes that the small town is filled with people who have narrow and morally corrupted minds. For, to the businessmen of the town, Merrick was a failure; he was not interested in materialism as they are, he could not understand materialism as they have, and he was too sensitive and effeminate. 
There is only one at the gathering who fights the others: Jim Laird. He castigates the group of petty men, telling them that they are responsible for the deaths of some previously idealistic young men who returned to the town from college with ideas of doing business ethically, but soon became so disillusioned by the reality of how unethically business and other matters are really conducted in the town that they became drunkards or killed themselves. Laird tells the gathering of men:

"There was only one boy ever raised in this borderland between ruffianism and civilization who didn't come to grief, and you hated Harvey Merrick more for winning out than you hated all the other boys who got under the wheels."

"Where the old man made his mistake was in sending the boy East to school," retorts banker Phelps, in a sanctimonious tone as he strokes his goatee. "What Harvey needed, of all people, was a course in some first-class Kansas City business college."  

Jim responds by declaring that Harvey was the only one who did not care about Phelps, the man who claims to be able to buy and sell everyone he wants. Harvey, Jim adds, would not have "given a tinker's damn for his [Phelps's] bank nor all his cattle farms put together." But, unlike himself, Harvey did not become the "damned shyster" that Phelps and others wanted. Instead, he left and was able to foster his talents.

Ruefully, Laird adds that he and Harvey "wanted to become great men; so, Harvey left town, but he became "the damned shyster you wanted me to be." He adds,

"You pretend to have some sort of respect for me; and yet you'll stand up and throw mud at Harvey Merrick, whose soul you couldn't dirty and whose hands you couldn't tie."

Clearly, Jim Laird is the only man in the gathering who understood the sculptor because he is the only man with any sense of ethics. He has compromised himself, however, because he returned to his hometown rather than fleeing it, as did Merrick. For having done so, he, too, has become a "shyster." However, his conscience bothers him constantly; for this reason, he drinks. On the day of the sculptor's funeral, Laird is too drunk to attend.

Read the study guide:
The Sculptor's Funeral

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