Katharine Lee Bates, a professor of English at Wellesley College, had a chestnut-eyed collie named Hamlet and a green parrot named Polonius. She taught Shakespeare, and she wrote poetry. She loved to travel.

The Civil War broke out when Katie was still a baby. She hadn’t yet turned six when John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln. In 1868, when Katie was nine, her mother gave her a little red notebook. The 14th Amendment, ratified that year, guaranteed the equal protection of the law, regardless of race, but made no provision for the equality of the sexes. In the pages of her little red notebook, nine-year-old Katie reflected on the political status of women. “I am happy to say they have become impatient under the restraint men put upon them,” she wrote. “The great question of women’s rights has arisen.”

She’d been to Syria. She’d toured Palestine. She’d ridden a camel in Damascus. She’d hiked the Alps. She’d even seen the Dead Sea. But Katharine Lee Bates is best remembered for a single trip she took in 1893, a pilgrimage across the United States, and for the poem she wrote about that trip. She had an eye for grandeur and for wonder, for landscape and miniature, the poet’s version of the photographer’s eye.

She left Boston by train on June 29, 1893. The next day, she felt on her face the mist of one of the world’s most stunning wonders and wrote in her diary about “the glory and the music of Niagara Falls.” “Reached Chicago,” she wrote two days later, from the site of a world’s fair, the Columbian Exposition. What was glaringly wrong was “Jim Crow  segregation.” Frederick Douglas spoke at the “Colored People’s Day,” but Katherine had already left for Colorado. His words, however, rang true. “Men talk of the Negro problem,” he began, but “there is no Negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own Constitution.” Then, as now, this question remains!

And from the Kansas “amber waves of grain” to the Rocky Mountain’s purple majesty, and the alabaster cities seen in Chicago’s Columbia Exposition, Bates set down the poem after summitting Pike’s Peak.

America, the Beautiful,” Bates’s poem, set to music, became the United States’ unofficial anthem, a hymn of love of country.

There are plenty of better poems about America, the land and the people, including Walt Whitman’s “For You O Democracy,” written on the eve of the Civil War: “I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America, / and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies, / I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks.” You can hear the echoes of Whitman in Bates. You can hear an answer to both of them—an indictment of both of them—in Langston Hughes’s 1936 poem “Let America Be America Again”: “O, let America be America again— / The land that never has been yet— / And yet must be—the land where every man is free.” Then, as now, this question remains!

Countries are in our blood and we bleed them. “America! America! God shed His grace on thee,” Bates’s poem seems to date to a simpler America. It does not. Americans of Katharine Lee Bates’s day were as politically divided as Americans of this day—arguably, they were more divided—over everything from immigration to land use to racial justice to economic inequality. And her America was similar to this America in more ways, too: It was wondrous and cruel, rich and poor, merciless and merciful, beautiful and ugly. Then, as now, this question remains!

My prayer moving forward, after our great divide, is that we honor the words behind the song. Read them and let them become yours. America is only as good as the people who live by them. Let’s be all we aspire to be, from sea to shining sea.

America! America! God shed His grace on thee, And crown thy good with brotherhood,
From sea to shining sea!

“America, the Beautiful”

Katharine Lee Bates

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 grain 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!



How “America the Beautiful” Was Born
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