A biography of the multitalented woman who wrote the words to “America the Beautiful.”
Katharine Lee Bates carved herself a place in America’s cultural history by penning the majestic poem, first published in 1895, that later became the lyrics to the iconic anthem “America the Beautiful.” But as author Ponder (Hawthorne’s Early Narrative Art, 1991) convincingly shows in her similarly majestic account of Bates’ life, this poem was just one of many achievements of its creator—a woman who, through her work as a writer, teacher, and social activist, set an example of female independence in late-19th-century America. Bates was raised by her mother, as her father died within weeks of her birth in 1859. She first experienced “women’s collective power” when the widows of her hometown on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, mourned the slaying of President Abraham Lincoln by draping their black shawls around the local church to make up for an insufficient supply of mourning cloth. She took advantage of opportunities afforded women after the Civil War, graduating from Wellesley College and going on to teach literature there after studying at Oxford University in England. But she still faced blatant prejudice, as personified by a Harvard president who, at an 1899 Wellesley event, questioned why women should go to college when, in his opinion, they weren’t as intelligent as men. Ponder, a lucid writer, is particularly effective at showing how Bates’ tumultuous environment, as America transitioned from a largely rural to an industrial society, inspired her poetry and novels. She points out that the words to “America the Beautiful,” for example, percolated in Bates’ mind amid the depression of 1893 and a visit to see the glories of the Colorado Rockies. For Bates, the famous phrase “sea to shining sea” expressed the “ideal of brotherhood” that she believed would see America through the crisis. As Ponder writes, “Knowing what it was like to be marginalized and silenced, she wrote for those who had no voice, and she gave Americans a fresh and inspiring ideal of their country as an inclusive community.”
A biography that skillfully sets Bates’ work against the backdrop of the times in which she lived.