She Worked to Make America More Beautiful

“America the Beautiful” is not the USA’s national anthem, though some folks think it is a superior song to “The Star Spangled Banner.” Katharine Lee Bates wrote the lyrics to “America the Beautiful,” but she also fought for the rights of those who experienced the ugliness that the nation had to offer. It seems fitting that we learn a bit more about her today, on July 4, 2019.

Katharine Lee Bates, photo from Schlesinger Library, RIAS, Harvard University

Katharine Lee Bates, photo from Schlesinger Library, RIAS, Harvard University

Bates was inspired to write her poem “Peerless Pike” while on Pike’s Peak in 1893. She was a professor of English at Wellesley College for women in Massachusetts, but took a summer job at Colorado College that year. While on the mountaintop, she looked out, seeing far and wide. When she returned to the hotel she was staying at, she wrote out the poem.

On July 4, 1895, “Peerless Pike” was published in the church periodical The Congregationalist. Over the years, Bates revised the poem and republished it three times. In 1910 the poem was retitled “America the Beautiful” and published with music by Samuel A. Ward, a church organist and choirmaster. The two never met in person; it was purely luck that married the words with the music. By the time their work became “America the Beautiful,” the poem had been set to at least 75 different melodies. The version you and I hear today is simply the one that became the most popular.

By the time of her death in 1929, Bates would have heard her works and Ward’s music almost everywhere. The popularity of “America the Beautiful” varies over the decades. Some people have tried to have it declared the national anthem, either because the lyrics do not reference military struggle or because they believe it is easier for the average person to sing. Choirs, bands, and popular musicians put out new renditions of the song from time to time.

Bates was not merely a poet who got lucky. She was born on August 12, 1859, in Falmouth, Massachusetts, to William Bates and Cornelia Frances Lee. Her father, a minister, died a few weeks after her birth, so her mother moved their family to Wellesley. Bates was raised by two women: her mother, a teacher, and an aunt, who was a writer. As a child she was encouraged to attend school and did well there. Bates earned a bachelor’s degree in English at Wellesley College.

Like many women, she went on to teach at various schools, but she also started publishing her writing. In 1889 she had two major successes. "Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride," from her collection Sunshine and other Verses for Children, popularized the character of Mrs. Claus. Her young adult novel, Rose and Thorn, won a monetary prize from the Congregational Sunday School and Publishing Society; the story used poor and working class women characters to teach about the value of social reform. She also worked as a journalist for the New York Times at the end of the Spanish-American war, but her reports seemed to try to counter the negative stereotypes about the Spanish instead of fueling war propaganda.

Bates used the prize money for Rose and Thorn to travel to England and enroll at Oxford in 1890-91. She returned to Wellesley and was hired to teach while she earned an MA. She was then promoted to a full professor by the college and taught there until 1925. She even headed the department for some period during her years there.

Bates was a noted scholar who studied and published articles and books about pre-Shakespearean English religious drama as well as about Shakespeare. She also created a course about American literature and was the first woman to write a textbook to aid in such a course. Many people consider her the mother of the field of American literature because of this work.

She continued to write her entire life, sometimes using the pseudonym James Lincoln. Beyond poems and stories for children and adults, she wrote numerous hymns. She also published books about her travels around Europe and the Middle East. She took several multi-year trips around the world. In 1915, she helped create the New England Poetry Club and served as its first president. That club still operates today and offers three annual prizes for poetry.

Bates was not only interested in English and American literature. She was also a student of history and politics. For that interest, she was elected into the honor society, Pi Gamma Mu, while she was a professor at Wellesley.

Bates also worked for what we would call social justice. She helped found the College Settlements Association, which helped lower income students who wanted to attend college by providing them opportunities for housing. The Denison House was one such settlement project; in 1892 she co-founded it at Wellesley itself for women, many of them immigrants. While she had been a Republican, she left the Party over its objections to the creation of the League of Nations, which she and other peace advocates had been fighting for since the end of World War I.

Bates never married nor had children. She lived with another woman, Katharine Coman, who was also a professor at Wellesley, until Coman died of cancer in 1914. Were they romantically involved? Conflicting claims have been made over the decades, because there are no clear-cut statements from Bates or Coman to either confirm or deny it. The two met when Coman rented the attic in a home that Bates and her brother co-owned. Regardless of the probably complicated truth, she was named an Icon by Equality Forums in 2012.

After retiring from Wellesley in 1925, Bates continued to write and was called upon as a speaker many times. She died peacefully at her home in 1929 while listening to a friend read poetry. Massachusetts has honored Bates by turning some of her homes into historic sites and by naming streets and bike trails in her honor. Two elementary schools, one in Massachusetts and one in Colorado, are named in her honor. There is also the Bates Hall dormitory and the Katharine Lee Bates Chair in English Composition and Literature in her honor at Wellesley College. Bates was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970.