‘The Sculptor’s Funeral’ by Willa Cather

The Sculptor’s Funeral by Willa Cather, 1905

The magic trick:

Flipping the story’s focus two times, building to a wider, comprehensive portrait

Here we are with another Willa Cather story. It’s amazing how often she’s turned up during this SSMT year of state separation. Every week a new state, so you figure most authors if they show up at all will make a solo appearance. This is the sixth, by my count, Cather story this year. It’s a testament to how well she captured the settings she wrote about, and how well she knew both the plains states of her childhood and the east coast art world of her adult life.

So we have “A Sculptor’s Funeral” today, set in Kansas. It’s a return to a favorite Cather theme: the clash of coastal elites and flyover-state Trump supporters. Published in 1903. How prescient! How depressing.

So there’s a magic trick right there: capturing something about America so essential that it hasn’t changed in 120 years. But from a technical, story-structure standpoint, let’s praise the way she sets up this clever character study.

The story, for the most part, is about the dead sculptor. She puts us in the outsider’s view along with the sculptor’s student who has returned from New York with the coffin. However, as we read on, it becomes increasingly clear that the story isn’t really that concerned with the particulars of the sculptor. The sculptor’s story is only there to shine a light on the townspeople. This is a portrait of the town.

Then, in one more deft switch, the story pushes further into one citizen of the town – Laird the lawyer. He rails against the town, defends the sculptor, and then goes on to explain his own life. Suddenly, the story isn’t exactly what we thought the first or second times. It’s a portrait of the lawyer – or, in fact, a portrait, of the lawyer, the sculptor, and the town.

And that’s quite a trick on Cather’s part.

The selection:

Something in his tone made Steavens glance up. While the mother had been in the room the young man had scarcely seen any one else; but now, from the moment he first glanced into Jim Laird’s florid face and blood-shot eyes, he knew that he had found what he had been heart-sick at not finding before—the feeling, the understanding, that must exist in some one, even here.

The man was red as his beard, with features swollen and blurred by dissipation, and a hot, blazing blue eye. His face was strained—that of a man who is controlling himself with difficulty—and he kept plucking at his beard with a sort of fierce resentment. Steavens, sitting by the window, watched him turn down the glaring lamp, still its jangling pendants with an angry gesture, and then stand with his hands locked behind him, staring down into the master’s face. He could not help wondering what link there could have been between the porcelain vessel and so sooty a lump of potter’s clay.

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