Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 489
“The Sculptor’s Funeral” is a short piece of fiction by American writer Willa Cather, who achieved recognition for her portrayals of life on the Great Plains. The story was first published in the periodical McClure's Monthly Magazine in 1905. Cather may have taken inspiration for the character of Harvey Merrick from the life and death of real-life artist Charles Stanley Reinhart.
The story takes place in Sand City, a fictional town in Kansas. It opens as a group of townsmen are waiting at the local train station for the body of Harvey Merrick, a famous sculptor. Harvey has died at the age of forty of tuberculosis. He was born and raised in Sand City but was educated on the East Coast, where he became a successful artist.
When the train arrives, the townsmen meet Henry Steavens, a student and friend of Harvey’s who has accompanied the coffin, and they all travel to the home of Harvey’s parents. The coffin is placed in the parlor, and all the townsmen, other than a lawyer named Jim Laird, leave. Steavens is not only shocked by the disparity between the townsmen and his old instructor, he is also stunned by the vulgar state of Merrick's former home and the brash character of his mother. Annie Merrick, Jim tells Steavens, was a cruel mother to Harvey:
She made Harvey’s life a hell for him when he lived at home.
In this light, Mrs. Merrick's dramatic wails of grief strike Steavens as insincere, especially after he overhears her verbally abusing the maid a short while later. He finds it difficult to place his teacher, a sculptor of such beautiful works of art, in a home and a town such as this. When the townsmen return, they all sit with Harvey’s coffin in the parlor. As they sit there, the men begin to talk about Harvey. They mock his work and laugh at what a poor farmhand he was when he lived in Kansas. Steavens is again shocked at how small-minded and cruel these people are, particularly as the only recognition Sand City has achieved is as Harvey's birthplace:
The very name of [Sand City] would have remained forever buried in the postal guide had it not been now and again mentioned in the world in connection with Harvey Merrick’s.
Jim, who is also forty years old and went to the same school as Harvey on the East Coast, flies into a rage and defends his old classmate. Following his graduation, Jim returned to his hometown to work as a lawyer, but he has always regretted his decision. Jim is a shrewd and intelligent man, but he is also an alcoholic, and the next day he is too drunk to attend Harvey's funeral. At the end of the story, he dies of a cold while driving across the Colorado mountains to defend the son of a Sand City townsman.