The Sculptor's Funeral

by Willa Cather

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Having brought his tutor's corpse back to the sculptor's home in Kansas, Harvey Merrick's pupil, Steavens, meets the unappreciative, critical, and even vulgar family and acquaintances among whom his hero grew up. These are a rough people, people who cannot really appreciate people like Harvey and only really know that golden god: money. Harvey apparently spent a great deal of his father's money on his education—in a school on the East Coast, much to these folks' chagrin—and they simply cannot understand why a person needed the kind of education Harvey got.

He would have, they say, done better with an education in Kansas business: buying and selling cattle, running his father's farm, and so on. Harvey's mother is a brutal, vulgar woman who is, evidently, very good at feigning piety and inflicting cruelty on her targets. She is raw and animal in many ways—all flesh and emotion—and her histrionics over the coffin and, later, toward her servant sicken Steavens and help him to understand just how remarkable his tutor's gentleness and artistry were, having come from a place that offered him none of those things. The narrator says,

Steavens understood now the real tragedy of his master's life; neither love nor wine, as many had conjectured, but a blow which had fallen earlier and cut deeper than these could have done—a shame not his, and yet so inescapably his, to hide in his heart from his very boyhood. And without, the frontier warfare; the yearning of a boy, cast ashore upon a desert of newness and ugliness and sordidness, for all that is chastened and old, and noble with traditions.

Harvey died fairly young—at only forty years of age—and Steavens now understands why. It wasn't because of overweening passions or alcohol, as these self-appointed judges at Harvey's funeral seem to believe, but, rather, that he had to overcome his disastrous, abusive, ugly past in order to live a life of inspiration and beauty. He had to be willing to brave their disapproval and distrust and misunderstanding, and this took energy from him.

This is why Harvey rarely went home, Steavens now sees. As the lawyer, Jim Laird, says,

A burnt dog dreads the fire.

In other words, someone who has been wounded before is unlikely to subject themselves to the thing that wounded them again. This town, his home, was the fire that wounded Harvey.

When all the men who used to know Harvey watch his coffin, talking about his strangeness and his mistakes (in their eyes), Jim cannot help himself, and he must speak out. He says,

"I've been with you gentlemen before," he began in a dry, even tone, "when you've sat by the coffins of boys born and raised in this town; and, if I remember rightly, you were never any too well satisfied when you checked them up. What's the matter, anyhow? Why is it that reputable young men are as scarce as millionaires in Sand City? It might almost seem to a stranger that there was some way something the matter with your progressive town."

Jim points out that the town has produced few people who have been deemed satisfactory. In having placed such an emphasis on money and having demonstrated such little goodness, the town has really only produced people who cheat, people who drink too much, people who get shot under dubious circumstances, and so on. The town is a fairly corrupt place, and Jim says that he and Harvey tried to be good men, but the town does not really appreciate good men. The fault is their own and not Harvey's.

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