August 12, 2010

Bates: From sea to shining sea!

Though she wrote several collections of poetry, travel essays, and children's books, Katharine Lee Bates is today remembered only for one work. Born on August 12, 1859 in Falmouth, Massachusetts, Bates lost her father when she was only a month old. She graduated from Wellesley College in 1880 and later returned there to teach English for four decades.

She spent a semester in Colorado (where she met Woodrow Wilson) and, with other visiting faculty members at Colorado College, took a wagon ride across the prairies. She was so moved, she wrote the poem which cemented her in literary history: "America the Beautiful" was published on Independence Day in 1895; it was almost immediately set to music.

O beautiful for spacious skies,
  For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
  Above the fruited plain!
    America! America!
  God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
  From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
  Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
  Across the wilderness!
    America! America!
  God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
  Thy liberty in law!

O beautiful for heroes proved
  In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
  And mercy more than life!
    America! America!
  May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
  And every gain divine!

O beautiful for patriot dream
  That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
  Undimmed by human tears!
    America! America!
  God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
  From sea to shining sea!

Bates lived with fellow Wellesley faculty member Katharine Coman for 25 years. Historians still debate if the relationship was purely platonic, living in a "Boston marriage," or if they were a romantic couple. Bates is memorialized with a statue in Colorado and in her birthplace of Falmouth. There was some discussion that "America the Beautiful" should become the national anthem; of course, the anthem remains that poem by Francis Scott Key.


  1. Rob, Inspired by your Margaret tour, I am finally reading Megan Marshall's The Peabody Sisters. Have you read it? (Your girl is in there.) I think it's most excellent; in addition to insight into the character of the three sisters, Marshall really takes you back to that time in New England, the new, gripping ideas and ideals. As a New England woman born and bred, I feel very much at home in the Peabody's world. I think you and your readers would enjoy it. Kit

  2. My grandmother, who was a Wellesley undergrad student in the early 1920s, spoke about Miss Bates with great reverence. She occasionally saw Miss Bates on the campus, and remembered some presentation at which Miss Bates spoke and read her famous poem to the students.


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