Wednesday, June 29, 2011

From Sea to Shining Sea: The Story of 'America the Beautiful'

I. The Poem


At 3:00 PM on a sunny afternoon in June of 1893, Katharine Lee Bates finished packing her bags and looking over the lecture notes she had prepared for a summer school course she had been engaged to teach in Colorado. Hurrying then to the Fitchburg Railroad Company's depot on Causeway Street in Boston, she barely made it onto the train before it pulled away from the platform, heading westward across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on the first leg of Katharine's remarkable journey.

Miss Bates was 33 years old, head of the English department at the recently-established Wellesley College. As the train chugged westward, it drew the young professor farther and farther from her Puritan roots. An eighth-generation New Englander, she had been born on August 12, 1859, in Falmouth on Cape Cod. When her father, a Congregational minister, died just a month after her birth, Katie’s mother took on odd jobs to support her four children. But their reduced financial straits did nothing to reduce the development of young Katharine’s active mind, for 

hers was a family which prized learning. Her grandfather had been president of Middlebury College in Vermont; her mother was one of a handful of the earliest graduates of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, the first institution of higher learning for women only. So, in spite of the family's limited circumstances, the gifted little girl who once described herself as “a shy, nearsighted child, always hiding away with a book” was afforded the opportunity to attend school.

Just before Katharine’s twelfth birthday, the family moved north, to Grantville, Massachusetts (now Wellesley Hills), to help tend to the frail health of her mother’s sister. In Wellesley, Katharine attended high school and, in 1876, began her lifelong association with the innovative social experiment known as Wellesley College. Katharine was seventeen years old, one of 43 girls in the second full class admitted to the new school. The very idea of female colleges was still considered "shocking" in some circles. An influential doctor of the time was quoted as saying  that eventually there would be “two insane asylums and three hospitals for every women’s college”.



Even the bold new Wellesley experiment had its restrictions: There were daily prayers for the spirit and daily “tramps” for the body. Lights went out at 10 PM, and gentlemen callers were strictly forbidden—as was cotton underwear and the eating of sweets. In addition, every student was expected to complete an hour of household or kitchen chores each day. On the other hand, the new college spared no expense on its privileged charges: Modern scientific laboratories were constructed, and the school's Literature Department even included a course on Old Icelandic studies. Students ate their meals on Wedgwood China and enjoyed fine paintings and sculpture in the atrium of College Hall.


The quality of the education was superb, and Katharine and her classmates were able to thrive.  She majored in modern literature, and found time to compose more and more poems. One was even published by the prestigious Atlantic Monthly, earning the praise of no less a figure than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.



After Katharine graduated from Wellesley in 1880, she embarked on a career as a teacher—first at nearby Natick High School, then at the newly opened Dana Hall preparatory school. In 1885, she was invited to join the English Department at Wellesley, where she would remain for 40 years. By all accounts, she was an inspiring educator. One student said that Miss Bates could “awake knowledge that one had not realized one possessed… She seemed to tap unexpected reservoirs of information…”

Now, in the summer of 1893, she was on her Grand Tour of America, as the express train from Boston steamed north and then westward across Massachusetts. After spending the first night in a sleeping car, Katharine woke up in New York state, for an early stop at the fabled Niagara Falls. There, Katharine wrote a poem noting the


“passion of plunging water…

Columnar mist and glistening rainbow play;

A splendid thrill of glory and of peril”.


That night, in her Line-A-Day diary, she added a brief but elated notation: “The glory and music of Niagara Falls.”



On July 1, at Noon, Katharine reached Chicago for a weekend stopover at the home of her friend and colleague, Katharine Coman, professor of history and economics at Wellesley. Coman, with whom Bates would ultimately share a home and a life, was known for teaching “the human side of economics”. She was a lifelong social activist who supported striking garment workers and founded a Boston settlement house. Bates, while somewhat more conservative by nature, nonetheless was also the organizing force behind the College Settlement House of Boston, which enlisted students from the women’s colleges to help poor and immigrant workers.


Now in Chicago, the pair had put a day aside to visit “The Fair”--  the World’s Columbian Exposition—a spectacular celebration of the 400th anniversary of the “discovery” of the New World by Christopher Columbus. It was an international spectacle, a giant showcase of the very best the United States had to offer. One entire building demonstrated the revolutionary potential of electricity. Another contained 43 steam engines and 127 dynamos. The fair also featured more bizarre items: a replica of the Liberty Bell made entirely of oranges and a map of the United States made of pickles. California displayed a fountain of red wine; New York, a 1500 pound chocolate Venus de Milo. Pennsylvania exhibited the real Liberty Bell.



Among the 65,000 exhibits there were also inventions that would change forever the way we eat, dress, and live. Among them the first "sliding fastener" (later called a "zipper"); the first electric railway; a snack called Cracker Jacks, and a cereal called Shredded Wheat. Juicy Fruit chewing gum was introduced at the fair, as were carbonated soda, a moving sidewalk, the first American picture postcards. There was also a daring new entertainment (26-stories high) known as a Ferris Wheel, after its inventor, Gale Ferris. The fair opened with the first-ever recitation of the new“Pledge of Allegiance” to the flag, written by the Christian Socialist author Francis Bellamy in Boston. In honor of the fair, Columbus Day was established as a national holiday.

The centerpiece of the Columbian Exposition was a model "city of the future": fourteen carefully coordinated buildings, all painted bright white to look like marble. The effect was dazzling, especially at night, when thousands of incandescent light bulbs made the entire area glow. The beautiful White City of Chicago left an indelible impression on Katharine Bates.



Late on the afternoon of July third, the two Katharines boarded a train for their summer classes in Colorado. Bates took out her diary and wrote of the fair: “A thing of beauty.”


The next day, the Fourth of July, she found patriotic significance in the rich view out her window: field after field of Kansas wheat, glowing in the golden summer sun and swaying in the hot July wind. She wrote later that the exhilarating vistas unleashed in her “a quickened and deepened sense of America.” “[I am] a better American for such a Fourth,” she wrote.

On Wednesday, July 5, they arrived at Colorado Springs, in the shadow of Pikes Peak, and settled in for the three-week summer session at nearby Colorado College. The president of the college had purposely imported his summer faculty from the East in order to put his students “in contact with the brightest minds and most progressive spirits of the country.” It was an impressive group. The president of Brown University was there to lecture on the “Silver Question”— one of the hottest controversies of the day. A noted Shakespearean scholar had come from Harvard; a noted astronomer from Amherst. Katharine Coman would teach “The Industrial History of England”,and for her part, Katharine Lee Bates would teach two courses, one on Chaucer and one on her speciality, “Early English Religious Drama”.

In their spare time, the visiting scholars took in the area’s canyons and lakes and glens, its stunning red-rock boulders. But the crowning moment—which Katharine Bates later called the “supreme day of our Colorado sojourn”— came when visiting teachers were invited on a excursion to the top of Pike’s Peak.

Pike’s Peak was not the tallest of the Rockies, but its location was magnificent: right at the edge of the Great Plains, the first grand feature on the way to the Golden West. On Saturday, July 22nd, 1893, after an arduous trek by donkey,  Katharine Lee Bates and her party reached the Gate of Heaven summit, nearly three miles high in the clear crystal air.



Above the clouds and beneath the radiant blue heaves, Katharine fell silent. This “one ecstatic gaze” at the panoramic view across the vast continent struck her as a revelation. To the east, the golden sweep of the plains across America’s heartland; to the west, the regal mountains outlined the dreams of the pioneers. All the images and impressions she had been collecting on her journey coalesced in the infinite horizons before her. To her at this moment, America’s possibilities seemed limitless.



That night, when she returned to the Antlers Hotel, she wrote in her diary: “Most glorious scenery I ever beheld.” More significantly, she opened her notebook and jotted down a few verses that had come to her on the spot:


“O beautiful for halcyon skies,

For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties

Above the enameled plain!”


“It was then and there,” she wrote, “as I was looking out over the sea-like expanse of fertile country spreading away so far under the ample skies, that the opening lines of the hymn floated into my mind…”

Ten days later, the two Katharines left Colorado Springs for the long journey home to Wellesley, stopping one night in Denver, then crossing Nebraska and Iowa on the way to Chicago. This time, they stayed in the city nearly a week, visiting Jane Addams’s Hull House and spending another three full days at the World’s Fair. This time, they went to the Women’s Pavilion, and also signed their names in the Wellesley guest book, took in Buffalo Bill’s famed Wild West Show, and tried out the new Ferris Wheel.

On August 9, Katharine Lee Bates headed home to Massachusetts, arriving the next afternoon in time for tea. She spent the first days back unpacking, catching up on mail, and “relating [the] history of my wanderings”. Soon, it would be time to prepare for the fall’s classes. The poem she had written in Colorado sat untouched in her notebook. It would not be published for another two years.

II. The Song


One summer day in 1882, Samuel August Ward, the organist at Grace Episcopal Church in Newark, New Jersey, along with his wife, Virginia, and their friend, Harry Martin, the choirmaster at Grace Church, decided to take an excursion by ferry to Coney Island in New York. On the journey home, Sam and Harry stood at the rail of the graceful sidewheeler as it steamed back to the city. On board, a duo of musicians entertained the passengers. Suddenly, Sam began to hum a tune. “Harry,” Ward said to his friend, “if I had something to write on, I’d put down this tune that has just come to me.”

Martin searched his pockets for a piece of paper of some sort—but in vain. Finally, he took off one of his starched linen cuffs and handed it to Ward, who leaning on the boat rail, drew a staff and cleff and wrote out the melody which he would later be titled “Materna”.

A few weeks later, back at his church in Newark, Samuel Ward attached the new tune he had come up with to the well-known hymn “O Mother Dear Jerusalem”:

“O mother dear, Jerusalem,

When shall I come to thee?

When shall my sorrows have an end,

Thy joys when shall I see?

O happy harbor of the saints!

O sweet and pleasant soil!/In thee no sorrow may be found,

No grief, no care, no toil.”

The first public performance of the new hymn was at Grace Church by a chorus of 200 men and boys, under the direction of Harry Martin. Six years later, it was published in The Parish Choir, a five-cent weekly that made new works available to eager congregations. Shortly after that, it was included in the new Episcopal hymn book, and also made its made into the hymnals of other denominations.

Meanwhile, back in Wellesley, almost a full year after returning from her trip west, Katharine Lee Bates took up again the verses she had written in what she called her “scrubby” little notebook. She asked a friend to help find a publisher for the poem she had written atop Pike’s Peak, to which she had now given the title “America”. In the fall of 1894, the Congregationalist, a weekly church publication in Boston, selected the poem for its Independence Day 1895 issue. There it appeared in its original form:

O beautiful for halcyon skies,

For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties

Above the enameled plain!

America! America! God shed his grace on thee

'Till souls wax fair as earth and air

And music-hearted sea!

Much of the material for this blog entry was drawn from the book, America the Beautiful: The Stirring True Story Behind Our Nation's Favorite Song by Lynn Sherr (New York: Public Affairs, 2001)

O beautiful for pilgrims' feet,

Whose stern impassioned stress

A thoroughfare for freedom beat

Across the wilderness!

America ! America ! God shed his grace on thee

Till paths be wrought through wilds of thought

By pilgrim foot and knee!

O beautiful for glory-tale

Of liberating strife

When once and twice, for man's avail

Men lavished precious life !

America! America! /God shed his grace on thee

Till selfish gain no longer stain

The banner of the free!

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

Till nobler men keep once again

Thy whiter jubilee!

While the poem contained some awkward terms that would not survive rewriting (for instance the “halcyon skies” of the very first line, as well as the “enameled plain” and the apocalyptic “whiter jubilee”, not to mention “pilgrim foot and knee”), it nonetheless struck a responsive chord. And almost immediately, Americans started setting Bates’s lines to music..

First in print was a prominent composer named Silas G. Pratt, who had directed three bands and more than 75,000 singers at the World’s Fair in Chicago. With permission from Bates, he set the poem to music and and published his arrangement in his book, Famous Songs, in 1895. But that was just the beginning…

“No one was more amazed than I at the waythe hymn was taken up,” said the poet, years afterward. “When I found that [people] really wanted to sing it, I rewrote it in some respects to make it a bit more musical.”

The skies became “spacious”; the plains “fruited”; the third verse underwent some streamlining, and the “whiter jubilee” was replaced by a repeat of the glorious first refrain. On November 19, 1904, it was published in its revised form in the Boston Evening Transcript, and an editorial in the newspaper heralded the poem as our new “national hymn… a thoroughly American production well-nigh perfect as poetry.”

Once again, Americans read the poem and spontaneously broke out in song. In Rochester, New York, a Baptist clergyman named Charles A. Barbour came across the words in the Transcript and immediately felt “they should be used as a hymn.” So Dr. Barbour and his wife turned to the Baptist hymnal and looked through the metrical index to find a melody that matched the rhythm of the poem. Later, he would write: “After trying a number of other tunes, we came to ‘Materna’, and at once I felt that this was the tune to which the words could be most wisely joined.” A few weeks later, in November 1904, Barbour’s congregation, the Lake Avenue Baptist Church in Rochester, became the first in the nation to sing Bates’s poem to Ward’s music.

The new combination was such a hit that the local grammar school principal included it in commencement exercises the following week. Soon, word spread beyond Rochester, and choirs and choruses across the land discovered “Materna”, putting the song on the lips of even more Americans. In 1903, Dr. Barbour, now working for the YMCA, edited a book of songs called Fellowship Hymns, including, for the first time ever in print, the Bates-Ward collaboration

 Sadly, however, the composer never knew the impact of his greatest creation. Samuel Augustus Ward had died about a year before, on September 28, 1903, from an infectious skin disease. His obituary in the Newark Daily Advertiser called him “one of the best known musical men in the state”, but there was no mention of the famous national hymn which would be his most lasting legacy.

In the meantime, however, Katharine Lee Bates was still polishing her poem, making yet further revisions. In 1911, she published the final version (the one we know today), giving it a proper name and star billing in her new book, America the Beautiful and Other Poems.

“America the Beautiful” was increasingly being sung throughout the land, usually (though by no means always) to the stately yet simple “Materna”. But there were still variations: Some sang it to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne”; others to an old Irish classic, “The Harp That Once Through Tara’s Halls”. An astonishing number of people continued to write their own tunes—often sending them to Bates in Wellesley for her blessing:

A woman from Cambridge sent along music she had written because the poem “haunted” her. A voice teacher who tried his hand acknowledged that if the author didn’t like his music “the wastebasket is handy”. One day, Katharine counted up 74 different scores. But whenever anyone would ask which she preferred, Professor Bates studiously refused to choose, or to offer any criticism whatsoever. “I have always refrained from expressing a preference among the tunes,” she said diplomatically, “as it seems fit that the choice should be made by the singers rather than by the writer.”

She felt no such timidity about the words. She received numerous “suggestions” as well for refining her work: A gentleman from Ohio wrote a long, windy letter and recommended that “stern” should be changed to “firm” and that it should be “sages’ dream” rather than “patriot”. He also suggested that "'freedom’ expresses the idea more satisfactorily than ‘mercy’ in the last line of the last stanza.”

A hymnbook editor from Rochester begged Bates to replace “alabaster” with some “word or phrase more clearly significant of American ideals.” A man from New Hampshire stumbled over the same word: “What, I say to myself, are alabaster cities?” Some people even wanted her to remove the word “beautiful” from the title!

Bates rejected all suggestions with a polite but firm hand. She gave the poem freely, without charge, to all who wanted to use it—with one stipulation: that users “scrupulously follow the authorized version”.

Soon, the poem (and the song) reached even farther than “from sea to shining sea”. Katharine Lee Bates had no objection when it was translated into other languages and applied to other countries. “I didn’t have Australia in mind when I wrote it,” she said agreeably, “but if they can use it and like it, that is all right.” There would also be versions sung in Germany, the Philippines, India, Burma, Canada, and Mexico.

In this country, the song was fast becoming a hallowed American tradition. It was printed in text books, poetry journals, hymnals, and school readers. During the First World War, the American troops who crossed the ocean to fight in the trenches of Europe carried a pocket-sized publication from the US government called Songs the Soldiers and Sailors Sing; “America the Beautiful” was on page 15. As Lynn Sherr put it: "If George M. Cohen’s jaunty 'Over There' was the tune that took them to war, 'America the Beautiful', perhaps, best expressed what they were fighting for."

Years before, while still a student at Wellesley High School, Katharine Lee Bates had once told a friend: “If I could write a poem people would remember after I’m dead, I would consider my life had been worth living.” She could never even imagine the timeless power that her words would hold.

III. The Meaning

{Willy Nelson singing "America the Beautiful" at the 9/11 Telethon:

“I can’t read the lines through without swallowing hard,” wrote a Massachusetts woman to the Katharine Bates, one in a stream of ecstatic letters. A New York City school superintendent confessed to the author that after hearing 628 students sing “America the Beautiful” at a graduation exercise, he wept. “I am not given to the shedding of tears, but the thrill of the sentiments of this composition on that occasion produced that effect on me… That is a hymn which stirs a great emotion.”

The song became a classic, sung at everything from presidential inaugurals to Girl Scout meetings, a universal expression of hope and patriotism, even for non-Americans. When Pope John Paul II arrived in Boston for his triumphant visit in 1979, he kissed the ground and then exclaimed, “I greet you, America the Beautiful… America, America, God shed his grace on thee.” What is it that makes the words of Katharine Bates so meaningful? Why are they the ones we reach for to soothe and to celebrate?

 Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the woman who wrote these words was deeply, intrinsically, perhaps even genetically, a poet. “Hers was indeed a singing soul.” A college classmate called her a “creative artist: seeing life in pictures, hearing it in great rhythms or intoxicating lilts; feeling it with a zest or a poignancy far beyond the general.” Poetry seemed to come as naturally to her as breathing.

Katharine’s heart was also brimming with patriotism of the deepest and truest kind. The critic for The Nation pronounced Bates “A lover of national themes who has learned to treat them sanely.” Her sensible passion for her native land animates her earliest poems. America’s gifts, she once observed, were “the least of her wealth”; this nation was clearly “Something more/ Than cloud-enfolded hills or foam-lit shore,/ Or steepled towns.” Her ability to distill that “something more” gave us the glory of “America the Beautiful”.

The America that Katharine Lee Bates inhabited and chronicled in 1893 was an energetic, optimistic country, throbbing with conflicting forces. The widespread industrialization that pushed the country from coast to coast, from farms to factories, from small family businesses to colossal corporations, was creating perplexing new problems. The enormous wealth of some was offset by the growing poverty of many. To some, the titans of American development—John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, among others—were really robber barons, exploiting the country and its people.

The main themes of “America the Beautiful” were the ones Bates had explored all her life: the wonder of nature; the vitality of our nation; its treasured heritage and infinite potential for the future—all cast in a poetic majesty, in an ambiance of deep idealism. “The heart must outsoar the hand,” she was fond of saying, and that idealism is enforced in each verse of her great poem: an opening celebration of the goodness of America, followed by a brief prayer, and finally a challenge to make something better:

“O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain…”

The poem begins with a deep sense of gratitude for the gifts of nature, deftly framing the spectacular images of her trip west with her New England consciousness.

“America! America! God shed his grace on thee…”

This is the prayer of a woman who belonged to no church, who early in her life rebelled against religious dogma. She was not given to outward shows of piety.   Her faith remained deep, but private. But she was comfortable invoking God’s grace—as long as it remained clear that that grace was universal, non-sectarian, and truly as all-inclusive, as spacious as the skies above.

“And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea.”

A brotherhood, too, that was truly universal, that included all Americans, women and men alike. Throughout her life, she protested the bias of “an exclusively masculine point of view”, and later she wrote that she rejoiced that women “have become impatient under the restraint men put upon them.” As a teacher, she helped educate two generations of talented women to make a difference in the world.

 “O beautiful for pilgrim feet,/ whose stern impassioned stress,/ a thoroughfare for freedom beat/ across the wilderness…

The second verse celebrates our country’s founders and their heroic efforts.  But Katharine Bates was not blind to the failings in America’s history—what she called the “blots” staining our country’s past—more specifically, she said, “the shame of the Indian” and “the shame of the slave”. And so, she said, there was a need for America to be proud—but also to seek redemption and to strive to atone:

“America! America!/ God mend thine every flaw./ Confirm thy soul in self-control./Thy liberty in law.”

Despite her childhood horror at the bloodshed of the Civil War, as well as her later pacifist leanings after World War One, Katharine Bates had boundless praise for the heroic soldiers who fought the wars which produced a nation. The original version of her poem had recalled specifically the Revolution and the Civil War. Her later, final version, however, universalizes her vision of “liberating strife”, and deflects our attention from the carnage of war toward dedicated and heroic human beings “Who more than self their country loved/ and mercy more than life…”

But in the very next stanza, Bates takes aim at some of the less heroic figures of her own time—those whom Bates called “the money-maddened throng”. Bates did not oppose material success. But she realized that a truly great nation must aim for something more, something higher:

“America! America!/ May God thy gold refine/ Till all success be nobleness/ and every grace divine,”

Finally, Bates talks about the future:

“O beautiful for patriot dream/ that sees beyond the years/ Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears.”

Her “alabaster cities” were a clear reflection of the harmony and beauty of the “White City” she saw on her trip to the World’s Fair in Chicago. Bates did not view the American city with blinders. She knew the other side of life very well—the poverty, the tenements, the hopelessness and despair. She had written a children’s book exposing the “wretched, troublous life” of the sweatshops, its women bending over sewing machines in dreary closets with their “reeking walls” and “poisonous stench”. She was an outspoken critic of racism and discrmination, an opponent of capital punishment, and a supporter of many of the social causes of her day. She was a proud member of the Wellesley faculty which Governor Calvin Coolidge had derided as a “hotbed of radicalism”, and she understood that the sunny symbolism of the World’s Fair was not yet a reality. At Chicago, she said, “I saw America in the making,” and “that against the smoke-stained, sin-stained city of the day there lay the possibility of some spiritual invention that should give us cities that were all beautiful."

J: What reigns “undimmed by human tears” in the vision Bates presents is our dream for the future that sees beyond the problems we now face to a better land that can be. It is a powerful ideal of a country with a mission to carry out the promise of its founders—in spite of their mistakes, and ours. Hers is a song about peace and equality, not about triumph and conquest. It is a song about a land and its heroic people—all of us, Americans all-- united in a common quest to live out our ideals and to transform the face of our country in an image of liberty and justice for all.

IV. The Legacy

In 1925, Katharine Lee Bates retired from Wellesley’s English Department, where she had served for 40 years. She had outlived most of her family as well as her dear Katharine, who had died of breast cancer in 1915. But she continued to be surrounded by a great circle of friends, both human and non. When her beloved collie, Sigurd, died, she wrote a book about him and had him buried beneath a plaque on campus. She got another dog, Hamlet, and then a parrot named Polonius. Unwilling to cage the bird, she daily fed him toast and coffee, and carried him from room to room on a tightly clutched branch.

In spite of her retirement, she remained an undeniable star on campus, plowing through mountains of daily mail and greeting a constant stream of visitors to her house on Curve Street. Every day, working people would drop by, as would diplomats and congressmen and former pupils, many bringing their own children, and plenty of autograph seekers. “All of them came and went away with a strange light in their eyes as if her starlike spirit had left them twinkling too,” recalled a friend.

To the end, the books that nourished her vigorous intellect lay stacked everywhere, on the tables, the chairs, the desk, and the couch. An visitor at the time described Katharine’s study as “a restful, peaceful place… with an atmosphere that seemed to whisper: ‘Here are born lovely thoughts.’”

Her heart weakened and her energy waned, and as time passed, she wrote little. But through it all, Katharine Lee Bates maintained her curiosity and her sense of humor. When she was given a car and driver to make traveling more comfortable, she named the vehicle “Abraham” and installed a guest book for passengers to sign. When Wellesley College celebrated its 50th year in 1925, she was asked about the length of the fashionable new skirts, to which she replied, “If the skirts of today are too short, then those of fifty years ago were certainly too long!” And she continued to make news. When she decided to vote for John W. Davis, the Democratic presidential candidate in the 1924 election, rather than Wellesley’s old nemesis Calvin Coolidge, the New York Times wrote an approving editorial and found her defection from the Republican Party worthy of a headline.

 Confined to her bed in the winter of 1929, she disobeyed her doctor’s orders and stayed up to hear Admiral Byrd’s historic broadcast from Antarctica. Hers was an agile and curious mind to the end. “I am speechless before the miracle of radio,” she later told a friend, “by which one man can speak to millions over so many miles of frozen silence, and make them all feel like one family around a single hearthstone.”

But her health continued to fail, and in the early morning of March 28, 1929, after a bout of pneumonia, Katharine Lee Bates died in her own bed at her home in Wellesley at the age of 69. “Earth became a lonelier and colder place when her warmth and valor were withdrawn,” said her colleague Vida Scudder. At the memorial service for her at Wellesley, “America the Beautiful” was sung and her poems were read.  Speakers eulogized her “contagious chuckle”, her “nimble wit” and her “rather curious combination of rebellion and loyalty”. For her burial in the family plot at Falmouth, she had directed cremation and, anticipating her final victory in the battle to control her weight, she mused of her ashes: “I like to think how light they’ll be.” Ffor her gravestone, she chose a verse from the Psalms:  “I shall sing to the Lord a new song.”


Toward the end of her life, after “America the Beautiful” was already embedded in the national psyche and the author had become a genuine celebrity, Katharine Lee Bates held fast to her belief that the enduring success of “America the Beautiful” was due to the people of America, not to herself:

“That the hymn has gained, in these 20-odd years, such a hold as it has upon our people,” she once wrote, “is clearly due to the fact that Americans are at heart idealists, with a fundamental faith in human brotherhood.”

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