The phrase, “America’s Heartland,” particularly in modern political parlance, is loaded with connotations and subtextual ideas that are deeply embedded within the social consciousness. Rugged individualism, religious piety, moral values, plainspokenness, and the work ethic are all characteristics that define the American ideal. These ideas are so ingrained within our cultural consciousness that one risks the accusation of being un-American if one questions or contradicts them. Yet, this was not always the case. During the turn of the 20th century, Willa Cather’s work addressed her ambivalent feelings about the Midwest, particularly the small town, that receptacle for many of the ideas expressed above. Cather’s short story, in particular, “The Sculptor’s Funeral,” takes an unromanticized look at Sand City, Kansas, a small town which reabsorbs one of its exiles, Harvey Merrick, a sculptor who escaped the town’s provincialism, corruption, prejudices, and violence only to return in the event of his death. Cather uses his funeral to examine the values of small, Midwestern towns.
One aspect of the small town values which Cather illuminates in “The Sculptor’s Funeral” is the provincial attitudes exhibited by the people who reside in Sand City. Many of the people, including members of Merrick’s own family, use his death as a means to advance their own interests, or, in this case, to validate their own way of life. Many of the townspeople in Sand City earn their living either through business ventures or agriculture. Those not directly involved in these industries, such as attorney Jim Laird, do work which allows the other men to keep their wealth. Anyone who contradicts this way of life is met with disdain and mockery. During a sitting at the Merrick home, the men who were previously awaiting for the arrival of his casket at the train station begin a conversation regarding Merrick’s education (which prompted his leaving Sand City) and the affect this had on his father’s financial situation. Banker Phelps suggests:
“‘It’s too bad the old man’s sons didn’t turn out better,” he remarked with reflective authority. “They never hung together. He spent money on Harve to stock a dozen cattle-farms, and he might as well have poured it into Sand Creek” (1119).
Merrick’s interest in an Eastern education, thus, in the men’s worldview, had a deleterious affect not only on his father but the whole town, as well. Therefore, in the men’s eyes, Merrick is a selfish and thoughtless son. Phelps’ attitude draws a line between men like himself and Merrick. The only valid means of making a living to these people are through business, not art. Their dismissive attitude toward his Eastern “edycation” is gestured in their belief that his proper education should have been directed toward a “first-class Kansas City business college” (1120). Here, the men reveal their contempt for Merrick and, by that measure, for artists and Eastern intellectuals. Merrick’s self-exile from Sand City and his preference for the East are affronts to their way of life and value systems. By moving out East, Merrick devalues the very life his family created for him as a boy in the Midwest.
And yet, Merrick’s self-exile does exactly that. The life he fled from Sand City is rife with corruption and moral degradation. Jim Laird points this out in his speech when he reveals the towns’ dirty laundry. Alcoholism, gambling, murder, and insurance fraud are a few of the shameful secrets that lurk in Sand City. Even the minister, whose own son was “shot in a gambling-house in the Black Hills,” is too ashamed to speak of Harve’s shortcomings and therefore remains terse (1120). At least the minister is aware of his own hypocrisy. Phelps’, on the other hand, as Phelps points out, “swore his own father was a liar in court” and robbed him of his partnership in their business (1121). Laird rightly blames the town’s value system for the corruption. The emphasis on “money and knavery” created a town in which little of warmth or human feeling is valued. Laird defends Marrick, who’s reputation was being maligned by the men, by stating: “‘…you’ll stand up and throw mud at Harvey Merrick, whose soul you couldn’t dirty and whose hands you couldn’t tie. Oh, you’re a discriminating lot of Christians!” (ibid.). The values and beliefs in Sand City are so corrupt that Merrick, in order to become the great man that Laird, who went to school with Merrick, had wanted to become in Sand City, had to leave the Midwest and settle out East. Merrick’s goodness and sweetness may have had its beginnings in Sand City, but could only have full reign of expression, particularly through his art, elsewhere without the degradation that so many of Sand City’s young men faced. Such is a damning portrait of small-town, Midwestern values.
Though Merrick escapes the stifling environment of his hometown, he was not completely free from the influences which shaped his life. The prejudices he grew up with closed him off from the rest of society. Steavens describes Merrick as being distrustful of “men pretty thoroughly and women even more…[H]e was determined, indeed, to believe the best; but he seemed afraid to investigate” (1118). Merrick’s distrust, in spite of his better judgment, as Steavens recognizes, was born in the hometown he left behind. The prejudices and violence the townspeople exhibit toward anyone who is not like them prefigure Merrick’s estrangement from his hometown. It is exemplified in the men’s attitude toward Easterners and in the mother’s abuse toward Roxie, the Merricks’ maid. Steavens’ reaction to the abuse-“…it was injured, emotional, dramatic abuse, unique and masterly in its excruciating cruelty…”(1117)-only hints at the brutality. Classism certainly is the spark of this violence, but racism is involved here, as well. It is no accident that Cather chose to make Roxie a woman of color. By doing so, she reveals the violence the mother-and the town by proxy-exhibits toward anyone who is not of the same social class or race. Anyone who is, in a word, different.
Therein lies the relationship between Merrick and his hometown. There are several passages which suggest that the hatred toward Merrick may have also been homophobic. In one passage, the coal and lumber dealer relays a story about Merrick in which he describes the late sculptor’s voice and mannerisms as “ladylike” (1119). This passage is implicit in a number of ways. Merrick’s effeminate manners certainly set him apart from the rest of the townspeople. He is revealed to have little interest in helping his family on the farm-in fact he was beaten on many occasions when he allowed the cows to run away because of his distractions with nature-or doing any so-called hard work. His love for nature and art and his Eastern and effeminate affectations “feminize” him in ways the men’s interest in business “masculinizes” them. The response to Merrick’s mannerisms is telling. The beatings he received as a boy, which validate Laird’s observation that his mother made his life hell, is never questioned among the men. Unlike Laird, they empathize with Merrick’s mother and the hardship Merrick placed on her. Merrick deserved the violence because he failed to live up to their masculinized standards. Thus, Merrick’s ostracization in and his self-exile from Sand City thus becomes clear. The prejudices that are so prevalent in Sand City necessitated Merrick’s escape.
Here, Cather’s portrait of small town realities becomes apparent. The values, or lack thereof, implicit in the small town have a corrupting influence on those who live there. The corruption is revealed through the mean-spiritedness and violence that exist in the hearts and souls of the people. Both Merrick and Laird offer contradictory visions of the portrait, not because they grew up in the Midwest, but because they escaped it and experienced life in the east. While Merrick remained out East, Laird returned, but only to be enveloped by the very corruption he hoped to escape, becoming the shrewd lawyer the town’s establishment wanted him to become (1121). In this case, the small, Midwestern town does not inspire the heartwarming sentiments of the American mythos, but a cold and cruel reality that devastates and destroys lives. Cather’s ambivalence toward the small, Midwestern towns in which she grew up is revealed in Merrick himself. Born in Sand City, shaped by its conventions, he left to escape the stifling environment there, but returns nonetheless, not by choice but through death. Merrick can never truly escape Sand City. And Sand City, as Steavens remarks, is “mentioned in the world in connection to Harvey Merrick” (1120), forever defined and shaped by him. Cather’s description of small town life and values punches a hole in the American myth of the Midwest, one that is not completely dismissive but certainly offers a more complex prism in which to view the country.