American poet and educator Katharine Lee Bates (1859-1929) was a leading force in the early development of Wellesley College in Massachusetts and a noted literary scholar. She captured her place in American history, however, when she penned the patriotic poem "America the Beautiful, " which was first published in 1895. A musical setting of Bates's vision of the natural beauty and noble ideals of America later became a popular song that was unsuccessfully nominated to become the country's national anthem.
Katharine Lee Bates was an educator and writer who is best known for her poem, "America the Beautiful." After its publication in the Boston Evening Transcript in 1904, the poem gained nationwide popularity for its celebration of the spirit and natural beauty of the country. The musical setting of "America the Beautiful, " created in the 1920s, was an unsuccessful contender to become the national anthem, but has remained one of the United States' most recognized and beloved songs.
Bates, the youngest of four children, was born August 12, 1859, in Falmouth, Massachusetts. Her father, William Bates, was a minister who had attended Middlebury College in Vermont and Andover Theological Seminary. Her mother, Cornelia Frances Lee Bates, was a schoolteacher who had been educated at Mount Holyoke College. The Bates had moved to the whaling town of Falmouth on Cape Cod in 1858, when William was offered the position of minister of the Congregational church there. Only a month after his youngest daughter was born, however, William Bates died of a spinal tumor. His death placed the family in economic straits. The pension provided to the Bates family was not sufficient to live on, so they all helped bring in extra money where they could. Bates's mother raised and sold vegetables and poultry and also worked as a seamstress. Her two brothers earned cash by picking cranberries, catching and selling herring and muskrat skins, and herding cows. Everyone in the household also did piece work taken in from a local tag manufacturer. Despite their impoverished situation and the necessity of long hours of work, Cornelia Bates strived to provide her children with an education.
The family's fortune improved when they moved to Grantville, a town near Wellesley, Massachusetts, so that Cornelia could attend to an ailing sister. There, friends of the family secured a house for them and Bates was able to complete her schooling at Needham High School in the early 1870s. During her high school years, Bates discovered that a new college for women was being built in the nearby town of Wellesley. She set her sights on attending the new institution; after her family moved to Newtonville in 1874, she prepared for Wellesley by teaching and attending advanced courses at Newton High School. She was accepted to the college in 1876 and enrolled in Wellesley's second graduating class.
Bates thrived in the atmosphere of learning at Wellesley. In addition to the regular course work in her chosen fields of English and Greek, the college curriculum there included daily exercise such as boating and calisthenics as well as an hour of housework chores a day. Her favorite spot on the campus was the Browning Room, a quiet, comfortable room where she could peruse the papers of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She also enjoyed roaming the picturesque New England landscape around the college. Her solitary pursuits, however, did not keep her from being an active and admired part of the student body. She was elected by her fellow students to serve on the committee that drafted the class constitution and she was voted class president. During her student days at Wellesley, she decided to become an educator, an ambition she would fulfill in that very school. She also began to demonstrate her poetic abilities during this time, reading one of her poems at her graduation in her role as Class Day poet.
After her graduation in 1880, Bates began teaching at Natick High School. Only three years later, she became a member of the English department at Wellesley, where she would remain for the rest of her career. She left a permanent stamp on the style and quality of education at the college, earning the respect and affection of both fellow teachers and students for her innovative ideas. In 1890, her duties increased when she was named chair of the English department. Despite her teaching and administrative duties, Bates found time to compile an impressive number of publications during her career. Her more than forty books included not only volumes of her own poetry (some of which was published under the pseudonym James Lincoln), but also translations of Spanish and Icelandic works of literature, children's literature, critical versions of literary works, anthologies, and literary histories. Her work earned her a reputation as a noted scholar in literature.
Bates occasionally traveled throughout the country and to Europe to continue her studies and to give lectures. Her journeys to the western states in the year 1893 provided the inspiration for the poem that made Bates famous. It was during that summer that she visited the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago and marveled at the impressive architecture of the exhibition halls celebrating the wonders of the age. Continuing on to a lecture engagement in Denver, Colorado, Bates was further moved by the beauty of the landscape she viewed on a trek to the top of Pike's Peak. In her journal, Bates recorded the feelings of awe and pride that these events had created in her in a poem now known as "America the Beautiful." The poem first appeared in a publication called The Congregationalist on July 4, 1895. The response to the work was very positive; after receiving a number of suggestions from readers, Bates wrote a revised version which was published in the Boston Evening Transcript in November of 1904. This new poem gained an even wider acclaim and soon was known throughout the country. As years passed, the patriotic poem continued to grow in popularity. In the 1920s, a contest to create a musical score for the poem was sponsored by the National Federation of Music Clubs. The resulting song captured the heart of Americans, and some felt that it should become the national anthem—an honor it did not receive. But the poem and its author had succeeded in becoming an established part of American cultural history.
Bates did not let her fame as the author of "America the Beautiful" distract her from her duties at Wellesley. She continued an active career as a scholar, teacher, and administrator until her retirement in 1925. Her family was an important part of her professional and personal life throughout these years: her sister Jane assisted with Bates' household chores and typing her manuscripts and her mother helped to translate Spanish literature and folktales for her books. Bates often entertained at her home, hosting gatherings for students and colleagues as well as noted literary guests such as the poets Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg and William Butler Yeats. She continued her own writing after her retirement, producing a number of articles and book reviews as well as a collection of poetry, The Pilgrim Ship, which was published in 1926. After a series of illnesses in her final years, Bates died of pneumonia on March 28, 1929, in Wellesley. While her literary studies and translations remain a respected body of work, it is her poem "America the Beautiful" that has become her most memorable contribution to American literature. The praises for the natural and spiritual resources of the United States contained in her verses captured a sense of national identity and pride that continues to resonate in the American imagination.
For more information see Burgess, Dorothy Whittemore Bates, Dream and Deed: The Story of Katharine Lee Bates, University of Oklahoma Press, 1952; Drury, Michael, "Why She Wrote America's Favorite Song, " Reader's Digest, July 1993, pp. 90-93.