WPA Guide Series

By Fern Nesson

Fern Nesson takes us on the road following the original WPA Guidebooks. Follow along as she re-enacts these journeys, discovering what’s old and what’s new.

Travels with the WPA State Guides: The Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge Massachusetts

 Fern L. Nesson, April, 2020

An Introduction: On The Road With the WPA’s American Guide Series

The American Guide Series, produced by the Federal Writers’ Project, is one of the most well-known WPA projects. Written as a collection of travel guides, the series included suggested tour routes as well as essays on the history and culture of each U.S. state and territory. Major U.S. cities and several regions were also given their own separate guidebooks.  

The state guides give a fascinating snapshot of American life in the 1930s. Written in a lively and approachable style, they detail and celebrate the rich diversity that our country displayed at that time. The writers’ enthusiasm is infectious and their guide is as much fun to read today as it must have been for travelers in the 1930s.  

Several historians have written about the American Guide Series over the past 80 years, but no one, to my knowledge, has used them as current-day travel guides. That is just what I set out to do. I am an American historian, art photographer, and enthusiastic traveler. I have read each of these guides. I love them for their wonderful enthusiasm and their curiosity about every aspect of regional life—from food, to linguistics, to folklore, to statistics, to geography, to environment, to history—and especially for their liberal attitudes and respect for diversity. In this series, I will be posting photo essays and articles based upon tours recommended in the guides.

Fern L. Nesson

The Massachusetts State Guide devotes an entire page to the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge and it urges a visit. Rightly so. 

“Mt. Auburn Cemetery has famous graves of nearly everyone of note who has died in or near Boston for the past hundred years […] The reason for the choice of Mt. Auburn by the families of so many celebrities, before it became so historically noted, was that it was for many years the only garden cemetery in the environs of Boston […] It is still the most beautiful. Its grounds are thickly wooded with rare trees and shrubs, landscaped with occasional ponds, and they rise to a commanding hill from which is a dreamy view of the winding Charles River, Cambridge, Boston and the distant hills.”  (p.102)  

Colonel Robert Gould Shaw’s memorial at the Mt. Auburn Cemetery

In fact, although the Guide does not mention it, Mt. Auburn was the first garden cemetery in the United States. Founded in 1831 according to the  principles of transcendental philosophy,  it  was designed intentionally to place the dead in a beautiful, pastoral setting.  Right from its opening, Mt. Auburn has been a coveted burial place for interesting and renowned families of Cambridge and Boston. Among the notable persons buried here are:

Oliver Wendell Holmes (author)

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (Supreme Court Justice)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (poet)

Amy Lowell (poet), 

John Bartlett (compiler of the Familiar Quotations), 

Dorothea Dix, who pioneered humane treatment for insanity

Winslow Homer (artist)

Julia Ward Howe, author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” 

Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science

Margaret Fuller (author)

Henry Cabot Lodge

Edwin Land (inventor of Polaroid camera)

numerous presidents and professors of Harvard

Felix Frankfurter (Supreme Court justice)

Buckminster Fuller (architect)

Charles Bulfinch (architect)

Isabella Stuart Gardner

Nathaniel Bowditch (mathematician)

Elizabeth Cary Agassiz (first president of Radcliffe College)

But one of the most renowned heroes from Boston is buried elsewhere. Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the commanding officer of the 54th  Massachusetts, the first black Regiment to fight in the Civil War, was buried in a common grave with his soldiers at Fort Wagner, South Carolina in 1863. Rather than separate him from his troops, his family, erected a memorial to him in their family plot in Mt. Auburn.  It is one of the most moving places in a cemetery that contains many of them. 

Colonel Robert Gould Shaw’s memorial at the Mt. Auburn Cemetery

The charm and popularity of Mt. Auburn set the pattern for the creation of garden cemeteries throughout our nation and the founders’ choice to design it as a welcoming park for the living spurred the founding of city, state and national parks.

Fifty years after the Guide described it, Mt. Auburn remains utterly pastoral, peaceful and beautiful. Its 178 acres comprise two lakes, rolling hills, shaded pathways, forested sections, stately trees and flowering shrubs. Unusual trees are labelled for naturalists and the cemetery is home to a considerable and varied bird population, wild turkeys, great blue heron and the occasional deer.   

Pastoral views at Mt. Auburn

The graves are often as beautiful as the natural elements. Some of the grave sites are enclosed by black wrought-iron fences; others are graced with statuary; many have interesting inscriptions about the deceased.

In recent years, gardeners, landscape historians, and architects have joined forces to maintain its natural settings and to renew some of them by replanting them with original, native grasses. 

The two nineteenth century chapels have also recently been renovated. Their original stained glass windows now sparkle and one now has a stunning, modern glass addition. 

Bigelow Chapel
View of the Bigelow Chapel
Interior view of the rose window at Bigelow Chapel
Stained glass window at Bigelow Chapel

 The cemetery continues to be one of the most well-loved Cambridge landmarks. Memorial services are held in its 19th century chapels, bird-watchers come at dawn; landscape architects and historians lead walks for visitors, families wander on  the forest paths. At the top of the cemetery’s highest hill, visitors can still climb the Bigelow Tower for 360 degree views of Boston and the surrounding towns. 

The first president of the Mount Auburn Cemetery was Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story who delivered the dedication address on September 24, 1831 to a crowd of 2000:

My Friends, –

The occasion which brings us together, has much in it calculated to awaken our sensibilities, and cast a solemnity over our thoughts. We are met to consecrate these grounds exclusively to the service and repose of the dead. The duty is not new; for it has been performed for countless millions. The scenery is not new; for the hill and the valley, the still, silent dell, and the deep forest, have often been devoted to the same pious purpose. But we address feelings intelligible to all nations, and common to all hearts. 

…It is to the living mourner – to the parent, weeping over his dear dead child – to the husband, dwelling in his own solitary desolation – to the widow, whose heart is broken by untimely sorrow – to the friend, who misses at every turn the presence of some kindred spirit. Thus, these repositories of the dead caution us, by their very silence, of our own frail and transitory being. They instruct us in the true value of life, and in its noble purposes, its duties, and its destination. They spread around us, in the reminiscences of the past, sources of pleasing, though melancholy reflection.

We dwell with pious fondness on the characters and virtues of the departed; and, as time interposes its growing distances between us and them, we gather up, with more solicitude, the broken fragments of memory, and weave into our very hearts, the threads of their history. As we sit down by their graves, we seem to hear the tones of their affection, whispering in our ears. We listen to the voice of their wisdom, speaking in the depths of our souls. We shed our tears; but they are no longer the burning tears of agony. They relieve our drooping spirits. We return to the world, and we feel ourselves purer, and better, and wiser, from this communion with the dead.    (excerpt taken from Joseph Story’s Address Delivered on the Dedication of the Cemetery at Mount Auburn, September 24th, 1831.)

 If you notice a similarity in language and theme with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, that is no accident. Historians note that Lincoln studied Story’s Dedication when drafting his own speech in 1863. See Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg, p.64-65 (1992).

Justice Story’s tomb at the Mt. Auburn Cemetery

Ironically, Justice Story’s tomb in the cemetery is one of the few that has not been maintained well. The contrast with his memorial statue at entrance to the Harvard Law School Library (where he is still considered to be a hero) is quite stark:

Justice Story’s memorial statue at entrance to the Harvard Law School Library

In these times of peril, one would not customarily think of a visit to a cemetery as a comfort  but I and many others in Cambridge definitely find it to be so. On a recent Sunday afternoon during this, our year of the plague, I passed dozens of other visitors strolling the grounds and admiring them in exactly the spirit that the founders envisioned 189 years ago.