Date of this Version
Published in Studies in American Fiction 43:2 (2016), pp. 207–229. doi 10.1353/saf.2016.0010
In January 1905, Willa Cather’s story “The Sculptor’s Funeral” appeared in McClure’s Magazine and shortly thereafter in her first book of fiction, The Troll Garden, a collection of stories about art and artists. In the story, the body of sculptor Harvey Merrick arrives in his hometown of Sand City, Kansas, on a train from Boston, accompanied by his friend and former student, Henry Steavens. Cather criticism has long been concerned with identifying real-world prototypes for characters and situations in her fiction, and two such prototypes have been unearthed for “The Sculptor’s Funeral.” First, the return by train of the body of a young man who died elsewhere to her childhood home of Red Cloud, Nebraska, an event commemorated in her poem “The Night Express,” first published in The Youth’s Companion in 1902 and republished in her first book, the collection of poems April Twilights (1903). Second, the situation of Pittsburghborn painter and illustrator Charles Stanley Reinhart, who died in 1896 in New York and whose funeral in Pittsburgh Cather attended, writing a newspaper column about the erection of a memorial at his grave in 1897. While the case for these prototypes is clear, no one has accounted for the title of Cather’s story and her decision to make her dead artist a sculptor—that is, her story is not “The Painter’s Funeral.”
In this essay, I propose a literary source for Cather’s title and the situation of her story, a nineteenth-century poem by the same title. In January 1858, Boston poet and dentist Thomas William Parsons published in the Atlantic Monthly a poem entitled “The Sculptor’s Funeral.” The occasion of the poem was the December 5, 1857, New York City funeral of American sculptor Thomas Crawford. He had died in London in October 1857 after a long illness, and his body had been sealed in a lead-lined oak coffin for transport back to his native New York for burial.2 For many years before his death, Crawford had lived and worked in Italy, and Parsons himself, who had met Crawford in Italy, is the “mourner” in the striking opening of his poem about the funeral at St. John’s Episcopal Chapel in Varick Street.