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Home » Cambridge & Harvard » Katharine Lee Bates (1859-1929)

Katharine Lee Bates (1859-1929)

Katharine Lee Bates

Katharine Lee Bates

The author of “America the Beautiful” was a professor of English at Wellesley College. Her father’s family left England and settled in Hingham, Massachusetts, in 1635. He was pastor of the Congregational Church on the Village Green at Falmouth on Cape Cod and died from a back injury when Katharine was one month old. Her mother, a graduate of Mount Holyoke Seminary, moved the family to Wellesley where Bates graduated in 1880 from then-new Wellesley College, thanks to help from her two older brothers.

After spending a year at Oxford University, she began teaching English at Wellesley College and soon became a full professor. Her salary was $400 per year “with board and washing.” When she met Longfellow, he praised her high-school poem, “Sleep”. Writing was a continuing priority that provided some financial support—children’s stories, books of verse, textbooks, travel books based on her three sabbatical years in Europe and the Middle East.

In the summer of 1893, when she was lecturing at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Bates joined a group that took a rough prairie wagonride plus a struggle by mule, followed by an exhausting hike to the top of 14,000 foot-high Pike’s Peak. Overwhelmed by what she saw, Bates scribbled in her notebook all four verses of our unofficial national anthem celebrating America. When published, the poem was an instant hit. Her copyright provided continuing royalties for years.

At Wellesley the poet developed an intimate partnership with Katharine Coman, the professor of economics who was also dean of the college. Both were poets. They jointly wrote English History as Taught by English Poets. Their “Boston Marriage” of living together for twenty-five years ended in Coman’s death by cancer at age 57. Bates, in her agony, published Yellow Clover: A Book of Remembrance celebrating their love and their common labor not only in education and literature but also their involvement in social reform with their colleague Vida Scudder.

Bates died at home in Wellesley at the age of seventy. Her contribution to life is symbolized by our vibrant singing of “America the Beautiful.” A biography of her by Dorothy Burgess is Dream and Deed: The Story of Katherine Lee Bates issued by the University of Oklahoma Press. In addition to the Wellesley College dormitory bearing her name, a life-size bronze statue of her stands on the grounds of the Falmouth Public Library.

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 impassion’d stress
A thorough-fare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness.
America! America!
God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self control,
Thy liberty in law.

O beautiful for heroes prov’d
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country lov’d
And mercy more than life.
America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness,
And ev’ry gain 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.

Click here to view supplemental reading to Katharine Lee Bates on Amazon.

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Categories: Cambridge & Harvard, Poetry, Prayers & Visual Arts