The Northern Front


If you look in the middle of the names on the wall to the right, you’ll find a plaque for Robert Could Shaw, identical in size and shape to those of his classmates. All it gives is his name and the place and date of death (Fort Wagner, S.C., 1863), but this isn’t the only mention of Shaw that was ever made here. Immediately to the right of the Memorial Transept is Sanders Theatre, Cambridge’s largest auditorium, whose hard oaken pews can accommodate almost twelve hundred people. When the Saint-Gaudens memorial was dedicated, Henry Lee Higginson, a respected Boston public figure and philanthropist who was the first patron of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, gave an address to an entire class of Harvard students in this theater to honor his old friend and classmate Bob Shaw. But Higginson was less interested in mourning Shaw’s death than he was in inspiring the students before him, and if you sit in the old Sanders Theatre seats, in front of the stern statue of Josiah Quincy and the giant Veritas seal, it is not hard to imagine Higginson’s words resonating from the wooden stage: “Boys, your generation also in turn has its own fresh ideals, and its message to the world. . . . We know that under stress of war you would prove yourselves brave and loyal soldiers, but your trial comes in the days of peace, and you as citizens are quite as much needed at the front as we were in ’61. ... In yonder cloister, on the tablet with his classmates of 1860, is engraved the name of Robert Gould Shaw. He will always be a heroic figure to you, while to us—his comrades—he will be all this, and furthermore the dear friend, respected and beloved. Harvard students! whenever you hear of Colonel Shaw, or of any officer or of any man of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment, salute him in the name of Harvard University and Harvard men.”

Mount Auburn is more like a park than a traditional cemetery; from its highest point you can look out and see the whole city.

Harvard men (and women) are still easy to find in Sanders Theatre, where students flock by the hundreds to Harvard’s largest undergraduate lecture courses, two of which seem mystically linked to the city’s past. Every other spring students crowd into Sanders for a course called “The Bible and Its Interpreters,” and in the fall hundreds of them gather again for a course called, simply, “Justice.” As one of those students, I pass through the Memorial Transept and into Sanders Theatre several times a week. Too often, as I stumble to and from class, thinking about what the professor in Justice just said or how I’ll never finish that Bible paper due the next day, I am oblivious of the beauty of the cavernous theater and vestibule. But occasionally, when I am less pre-occupied than usual, on my way out of the lecture, I pause in the hallway, look for Shaw’s name on the wall, and silently salute him.

No matter how elusive a city’s history may seem, every city in the world has a reservoir somewhere where the drops of time collect, and that place is the local cemetery. Boston’s dead lie beneath each square foot of the city, their gravestones breaking through the grass and concrete every few blocks, but Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge is the city’s great open museum of its past heroes.