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.”

Friday, June 17, 2011

Obama's Dream of His Father

Following his parents’ separation, then divorce, when he was just two, Barack Obama met his father only one time—in December 1971, when he was ten years old.

They would spend a month together, at his mother’s parents home in Hawaii: a rather unremarkable month, really, of which Obama says he has few memories. There were walks around the neighborhood, and a trip to a concert by the jazz pianist Dave Brubeck (at which young Barack struggled to stay awake). There was the exchange of presents on Christmas morning (for it was December): Barack gave his father a silk tie (“Ah,” his father said, “people will know I am very important wearing such a tie.”). His father gave Barack a basketball. They were photographed in front of the Christmas tree, holding their gifts. There were quiet times in front of the television, and there were family arguments: about watching too much t.v.; about not doing homework; the grandfather complaining that his ex-son-in-law was sitting in his chair; the grandmother complaining that she wasn’t anyone’s servant. The elder Obama taught young Barack (or Barry, as he was known back then) how to dance to the African rhythms on some phonograph albums he brought along (“Listen to these, Barry. The sounds of your continent.”)
But when the month was over, there had been no sharing of soul with soul; no deep father-son reunion; no outpouring of everything that needed to be said to reestablish a severed bond.
“There was so much to tell in that single month,” Obama wrote years later in Dreams from My Father, “so much explaining to do; and yet when I reach back into my memory for the words of my father, the small interactions or conversations we might have had, they seem irretrievably lost. Perhaps they’re imprinted too deeply, his voice the seed of all sorts of tangled arguments that I carry on within myself, as impenetrable now as the pattern of my genes, so that all I can perceive is the worn-out shell.”

Michele Obama thinks that the lack of deep conversations came from the lack of trust between Barack and his father: “...boys and their fathers don’t always have much to say to each other unless and until they trust…” Trust is not something that can be built overnight, or in a one-month visit. Sometimes, it takes years, even decades to establish. For this reason, perhaps, Obama says he often felt mute in his father’s presence, and his father never pushed him to speak. Nor did his father seek to generate the genuine trust from which true and deep sharing can result. Creating trust requires intimacy and honesty and a stripping away of masks and defenses and the myths we create about ourselves—and that was not something the elder Obama seemed willing to do.
So, even when his father bid them all farewell and went back to Africa, Obama was left with the myth of who his father was, rather than the living, breathing reality. Myths aren’t bad (necessarily). Myths can empower; they can teach; they can connect us with stories larger than our own. But when myths die—when myths are shattered—the result can be devastating, unless there’s something there to take its place.

Obama’s myth about his father was knocked in pieces when he was visited in Chicago by Auma, his half-sister from his father’s first wife back in Kenya. After divorcing Obama’s mother and going to study at Harvard, the elder Obama had married a woman named Ruth in Cambridge, then had returned with her to Kenya, where he held an important, highly-connected position with an American oil company. Auma and her brother, Roy, came to Nairobi to live with their father and his new wife.
Things were all right for a while. Until Ruth gave birth to two children of her own, sons named Mark and David, and the bulk of her attention (and her husband’s) turned toward them rather than Auma and Roy. Then, when Obama joined the government in the Ministry of Tourism, things really began to unravel. He was trapped in the crossfire between different Kenyan tribes, then between different government factions, and his outspokenness managed to alienate the country’s president, Jomo Kenyatta, who banished Obama from Nairobi and put his name on the government blacklist. Obama then managed to eek out a living from a low level job at the country’s Water Department, but grew increasingly angry and frustrated at his lack of promotion. In Chicago, Auma told her brother Barack how bad things had become:

“The Old Man never spoke to Roy or myself except to scold us,” she said. “ He would come home very late, drunk, and I could hear him shouting at Ruth, telling her to cook him food. Ruth became very bitter at how the Old Man had changed. Sometimes, when he wasn’t home, she would tell Roy and myself that our father was crazy and that she pitied us for having such a father. I didn’t blame her for this,” Auma added. “I probably agreed.”
Things for the elder Obama got even worse. Driving drunk one day, he gets in a car accident in which the driver of the other car was killed, and Obama himself ended up in the hospital for almost a year. He lost his job at the Water Department and had to subsist by moving from relative to relative. (This is the time during which he visited his ex-wife and son in Hawaii.) But finally, when he returned to Kenya, his old nemesis Kenyatta died, and Obama managed to secure a decent position in the government again.
“But I think he never got over the bitterness of what had happened to him,” Auma said, “seeing his other age-mates who had been more politically astute rise ahead of him. And [by then] it was too late to pick up the pieces of his family… When he died, I felt so… so cheated…”

That night, after hearing his sister’s story, Barack Obama thought deeply about all that she had told him. “I remained awake,” he writes, “propped up in a chair, with the desk light on… trying to make some sense out of all that [Auma had] said. I felt as if my world had been turned on its head; as if I’d woken to find a blue sun in the yellow sky; or heard animals speaking like men. All my life, I had carried a single image of my father, one that I had sometimes rebelled against but had never questioned, one that I later tried to take as my own. The brilliant scholar, the generous friend, the upstanding leader—my father had been all these things. All those things and more, because except for that one brief visit in Hawaii, he had never been present to foil the image, because I hadn’t seen what perhaps most men see at some point in their lives: their father’s bodies shrinking, their father’s best hopes dashed, their father’s face lined with grief and regret.”
Now, at last, the all-encompassing myth of his father had been exploded. But “Replaced by… what?” Obama asked himself. “A bitter drunk. An abusive husband? A defeated, lonely bureaucrat?... The king is overthrown, I thought. The emerald curtain is pulled aside… Whatever I do, it seems, I won’t do much worse than he did… Now he was dead, truly. He could no longer tell me how to live.”
But the voice inside his own soul could.
So often out of despair, there comes hope. A resilient, audacious hope. Freed of the weight of the myth of his father, Obama was free to fashion his own journey in life. The truth about his father—as gritty and stark and unhappy as that truth was in many of its particulars—could set Obama free to become the man he needed to become: the scholar in his own right, community organizer, orator, public servant, husband, father—to become all that he was called to be.

“When half gods go, the gods arrive,” Emerson reminds us. We all have dreams of our fathers—memories of them, reminiscences, lessons learned, pitfalls to be avoided—that dwell deep within our minds and souls. Unlike in Obama's case, there is usually no long-term absence which gives unrealistic myth the space to germinate. There was just the father we had before us, in the full array of his triumph and tragedy, his foibles and folly, and strength and courage and love.
These are the strands from which the fabric of our lives is woven, and from which the history of our own lives are written. On this Fathers Day, may we honor our fathers for the dreams they have given us; and may their dreams mix with our own, and may we pass those on to our own children, as together we weave a garment of life strong enough to withstand all that life can-- and will-- offer.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Under God? How the Pledge of Allegiance Came To Be

For generations, countless American school children—scores, hundreds, thousands, who knows?—have been reciting, every morning perhaps, an oath of allegiance to a dark and despicable power. (Maybe they’ve been brainwashed; or maybe they have succumbed to subliminal and immoral messages from television or movies or rock and roll music or something like that.) How else can you explain the oath of allegiance that these countless school children have offered all these years? To wit:

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic Four Witches Stand, one nation…” and so on…

Or maybe it was the Republic of Forwidgetstan, somewhere out near Afghanistan or Kazakhstan or This-or-That-stan, out in Central Asia someplace…

When he was in elementary school, Frank Hall, who was minister of the Unitarian Universalist church in Westport, Connecticut, used to sit next to a kid named Richard Sands—who was a big kid, and the son of the town’s truant officer, all of which made him seem kind of important in the eyes of a third or fourth grader. So, every morning, during the Pledge of Allegiance, young Frank used to say: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for Richard Sands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

When the courts (supposedly) threw “under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance, newspaper columnist Frank Cerbino has offered a few suggestions for what might replace it. How about “one nation under appreciated” he suggests (after all, we could all identify with that in one of our whinier moods, right?). Or how about a simple statement of geography, like “one nation, under Canada”? Or maybe, to be totally honest, “one nation, under surveillance”?

A humor website, Satirewire, goes on and suggests corporate sponsorship for the Pledge of Allegiance. That seems to be the way so many things are going this day. Why not corporatize the Pledge of Allegiance, then? We could have slogans like: “One nation, 24,000 Starbucks, indivisible, with lattes and frapuccinos for all.” The people at Satirewire claim to quote McDonald’s CEO Jack Greenberg as saying:

“The phrase ‘under God’ clearly violates the First Amendment separation of church and state. However, there is nothing in the Constitution that separates chicken and state, and that’s why we’re proposing ‘One nation, six Chicken McNuggets and a medium Coke, all for $1.99.’”

And Satirewire also quoted former President Bush as saying: “Well, I’ll be! I always thought it said ‘One nation, we are God…’”

So it was that on June 19, 2002—just a few days after Flag Day--  the three judges of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California ruled that the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance rendered the Pledge unconstitutional because it violated the separation of church and state.

The case had been brought by Michael Newdow of Sacramento, an avowed atheist, who argued that his second-grade daughter shouldn’t be forced to recite something which included the “G”-word. “Nobody should be forced to feel like an outsider,” Newdow said. The judges of the Ninth Circuit agreed. Compelling children to say “one nation under God,” wrote Judge Alfred Goodwin, was just as objectionable as forcing them to recite one nation under Jesus, Allah, Vishnu, Zeus, or even “one nation under no god”.

The official reaction, of course, was immediate and irate. “Ridiculous!” said President Bush. “Nuts!” said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. “Senseless!” said Senator Joe Lieberman. “Stupid!” said Minority Leader Trent Lott (always a man of such great eloquence). So much for reasoned discourse from our elected leaders. Hours after the ruling (it’s amazing how fast Congress can act when it wants to) the Senate passed a resolution (99 to 0) to defend “under God”. Judges who made such decisions, Senator Lott said, were “bad for America”; there was even, in some more extreme circles, talk of impeachment.

House Republican whip Tom DeLay said: “It is a sad that at a time when our country is coming together, this court is driving a wedge between us with their absurd ruling.”

Personally, I prefer the more reasoned reaction of the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, William Sinkford. After the ruling, Dr. Sinkford said:

“America is becoming increasingly religiously pluralistic. For many, the language of God is an affirmation, but that language does not resonate with all Americans. The ruling… raises questions about what it means to be an American, to be patriotic. The question is not what metaphor we use for the holy; the question is what commitment we make to liberty and justice for all.”

If there’s one thing history teaches, it's that it’s not our words and our posturing which make us great as a nation. It’s our actions.
Liberty and justice for all-- that was, certainly, the original purpose of the Pledge of Allegiance, which has a fascinating history of its own. (A history too often overlooked or ignored in the brouhaha following the Ninth District Court’s decision.)

The Pledge was written in Boston in the large red brick office building on the corner of Columbus Avenue and Berkeley Street (that’s one of those little bits of trolley driver’s lore that I picked up during my brief time as a Boston tour guide). The author was a Methodist minister named Francis Bellamy, who was one of the city’s leading proponents of Christian Socialism. Rev. Bellamy was an outspoken advocate of economic justice and social activism—so much so that he was fired from his ministry at one of Boston’s Methodist churches. But in 1892, he found a job as a staff writer for The Youth’s Companion, a large-circulation periodical for young people, very popular at the time.

He was also part of a national committee of educators and community leaders working on a suitable observance of the 400th anniversary of the first voyage of Christopher Columbus. It was to commemorate that occasion that the Pledge of Allegiance first appeared in the October 1892 issue of The Youth’s Companion.

In addition to celebrating Columbus, Bellamy would write years later—by which time the Pledge had acquired a life of its own and had become a staple of school and civic gatherings across the country-- that he also had the unity of the American nation so soon after the close of the Civil War (less than 30 years before) in mind. In its first publication, the Pledge had read:

“I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands: one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Bellamy (good socialist that he was) also said that he had also wanted to include the word “equality”—as in, “one nation, indivisible, with liberty, justice, and equality for all.” But the editors of the magazine thought that including “equality” might be too controversial; it sounded like it gave support to the efforts of women like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others to get the vote for women (which was, indeed, Bellamy’s intent, at least in part). So, “equality” was dropped. A month after the original publication of the Pledge, the editors of The Youth Companion changed Bellamy’s words slightly as well. “My flag” became “the flag” and the word “to” was added before the words “the Republic”, so that the first line now read:

“I pledge allegiance to the flag and to the republic for which it stands…”

A few years later, early in the 20th Century, the words “of the United States of America” were added as a “clarification”, it was said, for newly arrived immigrants who might not know to which flag they were pledging allegiance.

Much to his chagrin, Rev. Bellamy’s private statement of the faith of the individual in the deeper principles of America had become a mass public oath, insuring loyalty of all citizens to the government of the United States. During the Second World War, the Pledge acquired legal standing when Congress included it as part of a code covering the country’s symbolic emblem.

After the initial changes had been made, Bellamy’s words were to remain unaltered for fifty years or so. But then, a larger, even more intrusive change was made in 1954. In that year, at the height of the McCarthy anti-Communist hysteria, prodded by lobbying from the staunchly anti-Communist, heavily-Catholic Knights of Columbus, as well as from the socially conservative Daughters of the American Revolution, President Eisenhower signed a bill adding those two little words—“under God”—to the Pledge of Allegiance.

In this way, proponents of the change argued, America would be differentiated from those “Godless Communists” in Russia and elsewhere, who were plotting our nation’s demise. It would also be a handy tool, they said, for “smoking out” Communists who would (supposedly) refuse to take a pledge which included mention of “God” in it. (Of course, this reasoning ignores one of the most fundamental political truths of our time, which is that, quite simply, that Communists lie, cheat, and steal with the best of ‘em, and would happily say anything—including “under God”-- if it served their interests.)

So, in spite of the fact that generations of American young people had done just fine reciting a Pledge which included no reference to God; in spite of the fact that the American republic had survived just fine as, simply, “one nation, indivisible”—the words “under God” were added, unquestioned (it was supposed) until the ruling of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2002.  

It was during the McCarthy period, too, that our national motto was officially changed, from “E pluribus unum” (“Out of many, one.”) to “In God we trust.”-- once again, to differentiate “us” from those who “didn’t believe”. It’s interesting to note that in both of these cases—for both the Pledge and the motto-- statements emphasizing American unity were, in fact, undermined by additions which sought to divide, separate, and differentiate.

Perhaps adding a little history, rather than hysteria, to our national discussion such issues can give us a little more perspective, and perhaps to remember that truly being a nation “under God” isn’t just about saying the words or wrapping ourselves in the flag. It’s about remembering the words of the ancient prophets:

To loose the bonds of injustice,
To undo the thongs of the yoke.
To let the oppressed go free,
It’s about doing the hard work that needs doing truly to build a land of liberty and justice for all.