If you’ve ever wondered why bright, promising people turn to drink or drugs, this story will give you one possible reason: town elders who push young folks to become what they want them to be and then use them for their own purposes. The greed and hypocrisy of “upstanding” townsfolk like the bankers Phelps and Elder, the cattleman, and the Civil War veteran in “The Sculptor’s Funeral” are the ruin of promising young men in towns like Sand Creek, Kansas.
Harvey Merrick was the one who got away and that’s why everyone hates him.
It’s been interesting to revisit this short story while also reading Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser. The Little House on the Prairie books and TV series are remembered for their nostalgic view of a simpler, kinder past. But as Fraser shows in this Pulitzer Prize Winning biography, the conditions and cultures that the Ingalls family encountered were more complicated and darker than the TV show’s adaptation of her sometimes edgy novels.
There were several times while reading Cather’s story that I thought about the Ingalls’ struggles to make it on a number of homesteads and in towns throughout the West (the area now considered the Midwest). One instance was near the end of “The Sculptor’s Funeral” when Jim Laird goes off on the smug, judgemental townsfolk who are gathered around Merrick’s coffin and ruthlessly mocking the dead man. Specifically when he says,
Now that we’ve fought and lied and sweated and stolen, and hated as only the disappointed strugglers in a bitter, dead little Western town know how to do, what have we got to show for it?
The Ingalls never had much to show for all their struggles while Laura was growing up. They moved a lot, constantly searching for new opportunities. They squatted in Native American territory and were cheated on several business deals. Laura, like her Pa, prefered wild and open landscapes to town living. Neither of them would probably be included in a group like the judgemental townsfolk in “A Sculptor’s Funeral” (but I’m only on chapter five of Prairie Fires, so we’ll see!). However, the fictional Nellie Olsen would fit right in.
Even though Merrick escaped to the East and achieved success in his chosen field, he died young, at 40. He knew his former townsfolk were harsher judges of him than God would be. His student, Stevens, who accompanied his body back to Kansas is appalled to see this reality in action. It sounds like Marrick died of TB, but a cattleman snarks that whiskey probably helped kill him. Another tells an unflattering story and adds that Marrick sang out “in his ladylike voice.” So there’s homophobia at play as well as Merrick’s general non-conformity to the local stereotypes. Not to mention a mother who abuses everyone in the family.
It is sad to me that Marrick decided to have his body shipped “home” upon his death. He was a man of great sensitivity and beautiful creative vision and talent. It almost seems a desecration for his body to be back among these grubbing, unfeeling clods. It certainly comes across like a cautionary tale for young folks thinking about their future.
At the risk of mixing too much fiction with biographical facts in one blog post, Cather chose not to be buried in her childhood hometown. Nor was she buried in New York City, where she lived most of her life. She and her partner Edith Lewis chose to be buried in Jaffrey, NH, a place where they found creative inspiration and acceptance.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this short story.
Categories: Willa Cather