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Last Updated on July 18, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 489

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“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.

Plot Summary

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.

Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 877

Harvey Merrick, a distinguished sculptor, has died of tuberculosis at the age of forty. As the story opens, a group of townsfolk waits for the arrival of the night train that is bringing Merrick’s body back from the East for burial in the small Kansas town where he grew up. The conversation among those waiting reveals the small-mindedness of their assessment of Merrick. When the train pulls in, Jim Laird, a local lawyer, drunk as usual but seemingly the only person who has a real purpose in being at the station, leads the group of waiting men to the express car. There they find Henry Steavens, a young apprentice of Merrick, who has traveled from the East with the coffin. Steavens, who worshiped his master, is stunned by the apparent lack of any connection or similarity between Merrick and the men who have come to collect the body. He watches them gaze with curiosity but without comprehension at the palm that lies across the coffin lid, a symbol of Merrick’s distinction as an artist.

When the coffin reaches Merrick’s home, his mother rushes out into the yard, screaming for her dead son. Steavens tries to see some evidence of kinship between her and his idol, but he is appalled by her look of violence and fierce passion, as well as by the power she wields over everyone around her. Steavens is equally appalled by the cheap vulgarity of taste that is everywhere apparent in the decor of the house and can scarcely believe that Merrick could ever have had any connection with this place. Despite her show of pious grief and decorous behavior, Mrs. Merrick stages a horrifying tantrum when her servant makes a small mistake, and it is evident that only this same servant, along with Mrs. Merrick’s weak, worn-out husband, actually feels any sorrow for the dead man. Steavens’s distress at the abysmal family situation finds an echo in the expression he sees on the dead sculptor’s face, which looks “as though he were still guarding something precious and holy, which might even yet be wrested from him.”

Steavens begins for the first time to see the full significance of Merrick’s achievement. The sculptor’s accomplishments now take on a near-miraculous aspect, especially when seen against the background of his dreadful family and the physically difficult and culturally impoverished life of this small frontier town. Steavens also begins to understand the connection between the tragedy of Merrick’s personal life (that is, the sculptor’s deep introversion and reluctance to be involved in personal relationships), and his past life as a boy in Sand City.

Steavens joins the group of watchers in the dining room, who are as dreadful a collection of small-town types as can ever have been gathered together into one room. Everything they say reveals their pettiness and sordid materialism. The banker Phelps, representative of the mean-spirited callousness of all the watchers, discusses usury law with another banker. To these men, Merrick was a failure, and they dismiss him contemptuously for his lack of material success, his straining of the family resources for the purpose of financing his education, his inability to deal with the practical aspects of farm life, and his effeminacy.

Just as Steavens is wondering how much more he can take, Jim Laird bursts into the room. Despite the fact that he is a drunkard, Laird is a strong and intelligent man, as well as a shrewd lawyer, and Steavens has already recognized the fact that he is the only person in Sand City who has any understanding or appreciation for Harvey Merrick. Laird launches into a bitter tirade against those assembled in the dining room and everything for which they stand. In this climactic moment of the story, Laird reveals his own stature as a human being as well as the vision of greatness that he and Merrick shared as young men. Merrick was able to achieve his vision, it is implied, only because he never returned to Sand City. Laird, on the other hand, who did return, found that the town did not want great men but only “successful rascals,” which is what he became. Laird confesses that he had felt shamed at times by Merrick’s success, but at other times proud that Merrick, at least, had escaped. The next day, Laird is too drunk to attend the funeral, and, in a final moment of irony, Willa Cather relates that he died the following year of a cold he caught in the Colorado mountains. One of Phelps’s sons had been involved in criminal activity, and Laird had gone out to defend him, thereby upholding to the end his image of himself as a successful rascal. In what has clearly been his finest hour, Laird defends his old friend Harvey Merrick from the vicious attacks of Phelps and the others, but it is too late for him to salvage any kind of meaningful life for himself. Merrick’s death, on the other hand, although it has tragically cut short a life of great achievement and promise, affirms the values for which that life stood, despite the failure of the people of Sand City to understand or cherish those values.

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