Response to “The Sculptor’s Funeral.” The Willa Cather Short Story Project

The Sculptor's Funeral by Willa Cather

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.

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser

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

Tags: , , , , ,

6 replies

  1. I had the same reaction to Marrick’s decision to have his body transported home. I wanted his burial site to be somewhere he would be honored for his art and life. I keep wondering about his decision. Yes, definitely feels like a cautionary tale!

    I found this story so haunting. Cather’s physical description of the train station and subsequent isolated family home was so atmospheric and bleak. She does place so well. I can imagine the scenes as if I am an invisible bystander.

    Interesting pairing with Prairie Fires and the Little House books. I have Prairie Fires on my nightstand. I remember reading the Little House books, and was a devoted fan of the tv show. Nellie always made me so mad!

    • Right, I felt like I was watching the opening of a movie with that first scene at the train station. In a good way…I realize that’s not always a complement! I related so much to Steavens, particularly after he takes a book out of his pocket and starts reading to escape the reality he was in.

  2. The Sculptor’s Funeral reminded me strongly of the Jay Gatsby funeral scene in the Great Gatsby, only Gatsby’s was in reverse. His father who came from the west to the east that destroyed his son, just the whole ambiance of the two scenes resonated with me. And Gatsby (or Nick) chose to bury him in the east. So the west never got Gatz/Gatsby back. when he left, he left forever. As did Fitzgerald himself (buried in Maryland). He was (somewhat) a contemporary of Cather too. Wonder if anyone has pursued the potential overlap between Cather and Fitzgerald other than that of A Lost Lady somehow inspiring Gatsby (which seemed sort of weak to me).

    • That’s so interesting! I don’t remember the funeral scene in Gatsby and will have to revisit it. I don’t think there’s been a book-length study of the two, but there are some articles out there. (Here’s one I just read from 2013 https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-stepsister-novels-of-willa-cather-and-f-scott-fitzgerald).

      I was really surprised when I first heard about the Gatsby-Lost Lady connection, but that comes from Fitzgerald himself. He wrote to Cather fearing he’d plagiarized her. Do you know that story? Here’s a link that goes into it — http://www.catherletters.org/story-behind-letters/1925-letter-to-f-scott-fitzgerald/. I thought it was a stretch myself, but he was deep in the weeds as the writer of the scene. Maybe he just wanted an excuse to write her a letter.

      • I think FSF was definitely a literary fan boy, there is a (possibly just a legend) story of his meeting Edith Wharton and being so nervous and you know, giddy, that he showed up drunk and all he could do was kneel at her feet and kiss her hands. Not likely to appeal to our Edith! yes, maybe he was just trying to stay relevant. So sad the circus train of fame passed him by during his lifetime. It was a very crowded scene at that time, so many good writers that aren’t much read today. Seems like Hemingway took all the air out of the room before the war. I will look at that article for sure. thanks!

        • OMG. Poor Fitzgerald. I can only imagine Wharton’s internal thoughts. I do enjoy Hemingway’s writing, but the more I’ve learned about him over the years, the less I like him as a person. I really don’t know much about FSG other than what I’ve learned from the occasional article I’ve stumbled across or from hearing stories from friends such as the one above.

What do you think? Leave a comment and let's talk!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: