Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Katherine Lee Bates Saw America from a Mountain Top

This monument was erected in 1993, 100 years after Bates ascended the peak, as a donation from Colorado Springs' businessman Costas Rombocos.  Note the addition of all of the patriotic iconography surrounding the verse.  Katherine Lee Bates would not have approved.  

America the Beautiful with lyrics from a poem by college professor and writer Katherine Lee Bates in 1893 is one of the songs often mentioned as a possible replacement for the Star Spangled Banner as the Untied States national anthem.  The flag worshiping anthem although popular with traditionalist is considered too hard to sing by many and a glorification of war by some.  Others in contention for substitution include grades school ditty My Country ‘tis of Thee which has the disadvantage of sharing a tune with God Save the Queen, the anthem of the nation our fledgling country spent years in bloody rebellion against; Irving Berlin’s God Bless America which is a favorite of many Christians but makes defenders of the separation of church and state cringe; and Woody Guthrie’s This Land is My Land which is disrespectful of authority and written by an actual Red.  Bates’s mountain top pean might hold an edge for at least being made a second national song.  Australia and a handful of other nations have more than one official song depending on level of formality and state ritual.

Bates was on a summer trip to Colorado when she rode up Pike’s Peak in a mule-drawn wagon and hiked the final climb to the summit.  She was so awed by vista below her that she quickly jotted down a verse when she returned to her resort hotel and mailed it to The Congregationalist, a magazine which had often published her work which published it in the Fourth of July 1895 edition of the church periodical.  Originally titled simply America the poem immediately attracted attention.

Bates as a young academic and writer.

Bates was born on August 12, 1859 in Falmouth, Massachusetts to the Congregational minister William Bates and his wife, the former Cornelia Frances Lee.  It was a solid New England family with deep roots.  Unfortunately, her father died a few weeks after she was born, and she was primarily raised by her mother and an aunt with a literary bent, both of whom had graduated from the all-women’s Mount Holyoke Seminary.  She was raised from the beginning in an environment of books, a broad liberal faith, reverence for academia, and the nurturing influence of strong, independent women

She attended Needham High School, now known as Wellesley High School, in 1872 and then Newton High School until graduation in the Centennial Year, 1876 when patriotic fervor was sweeping the nation.  Bates stayed close to home to enroll at women’s Wellesley College as part of its second class the same year. She graduated with a B.A. in 1880.  She almost naturally became a teacher first taught at Natick High School in 1880–81 and then at Dana Hall School from 1881 until 1885.  She had no interest in finding a husband and raising a family which would confine here to the near cloister of a late 19th Century middle class Home.

She also began to write and submitted pieces to Congregational denominational journals.  In In 1889 Bates’s young adult novel Rose and Thorn won a prize awarded by the Congregational Sunday School and Publishing Society. It incorporated poor and working class women as characters to teach readers about the reform movements inspired by the Social Gospel in which she was passionately engaged.

Bates invented the character Mrs. Santa Clause in her poem Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride which was also a feminist declaration.

Also, in 1889 Bate’s invented Mrs. Santa Claus, an audacious introduction to the polar household of a bishop and saint.  In her poem Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride from the collection Sunshine and other Verses for Children Santa’s wife has grown tired of working year round to sustain and organize his Christmas Eve journey while the old man grows fat on her cookies.  She demands to accompany him and on the trip around the world chides him for his selfishness in not wanting to share the pleasure of gift giving and for ignoring tattered poor children and orphans.

With the prize money from Rose and Thorn, Bates was able to afford to travel to England and study at Oxford University in 1890–91.  Upon her return she became an associate professor at Wellesley as an in 1891, while she earned her master’s degree.  Soon after she was named a full professor.

Shortly after her return Bates took the opportunity of a summer teaching position at Colorado College in Colorado Springs.  Duties were not taxing and allowed plenty of time for her to explore the grandeur of the Rockies.  She would later recall:

One day some of the other teachers and I decided to go on a trip to 14,000-foot Pikes Peak. We hired a prairie wagon. Near the top we had to leave the wagon and go the rest of the way on mules. I was very tired. But when I saw the view, I felt great joy. All the wonder of America seemed displayed there, with the sea-like expanse.

Bates had personally experienced sexist prejudice and discrimination, had witnessed the ravages of the industrial revolution in both America and Britain, had seen firsthand urban poverty and misery, and keenly wished for equality. Her dream of an all-inclusive egalitarian American community also reflected the severe economic depression of 1893.

After first appearing in The Congregationalist The poem reached a wider audience when her revised version was printed in the Boston Evening Transcript on November 19, 1904. Her final expanded version appeared in her collection America the Beautiful, and Other Poems in 1912).

Bates's poem was finally married to the melody written years earlier by Samuel A. Ward.

The poem was set to various melodies until Samuel A. Ward, an Episcopal church organist and choir master married Bate’s slightly adapted words to a hymn he had composed in 1883, O Mother Dear, Jerusalem which was published ten years later.  He adapted his old hymn to the new lyrics and together they were published in 1910 under the new title America the Beautiful.  It became an instant hit not only for church choirs but on the vaudeville stage and in early recordings.  It has since been recorded hundreds of times and has made it to the record charts oftenIt is now frequently paired with the Star Spangled Banner and many American sports events.

Bates's happy academic home, Wellesley College.

Meanwhile Bates retuned to her happy and fulfilling life at Wellesley while continuing to publish widely and advocate for social reforms.  As professor she revised and expanded the study of literature from the Greek and Latin classics plus Chaucer and Shakespeare to include more contemporary British and American work including poetry and popular novels.  She was one of the first to teach and study social context of her selections.

Bates especially reveled in the supportive atmosphere of the all-women’s school and inspired by several deep and abiding relationships between faculty members she found there.  She met Katharine Coman while still an undergraduate and engaged her in passionate correspondence in surviving letters while studying in Oxford.  Coman taught history, economics, and statistics eventually becoming Dean.  She was enormously influential for framing sociological insights with social justice. She escorted her students on field trips to Boston’s tenement houses, labor union meetings, factories, and sweatshops.  In 1885, at the age of 28, she became professor of history and economics.  She inspired Bates on a personal and professional level and as a public advocate.

Fellow Wellesley professor Katherine Corman was Bates's life partner.

Most historians agree that the pair were in a long-term lesbian relationship.  Others believe that it was a “Boston Marriage”—a household arrangement of two single women living respectably together.  Such arrangements were common at Wellesley and among educated and wealthy women in New England.  These relationships may or may not have been sexual.

In 1906 Bates and her brother built a new home in Falmouth to accommodate her surviving family and tenants.  Corman officially moved into an attic apartment later moving to a downstairs bedroom.  The pair remained together until Cormans death in 1915 at the age of 57.

Bates's Fallmouth home Scarab House--named for the Egyptian beetle--which she shared with Corman is now a historical landmark.

As a writer, Bates continued to be active and moderately well known.  Near the end of the Spanish American War, she became a special correspondent for The New York Times and, always a champion of the underdog, tried to reduce widely-circulating negative stereotypes about Spaniards. She contributed regularly to periodicals, sometimes under the nom de plume James Lincoln, including The Atlantic Monthly, The Congregationalist, Boston Evening Transcript, Christian Century, Contemporary Verse, Lippincott’s, and The Delineator.

Bates was also a social activist interested in the struggles of women, workers, people of color, tenement residents, immigrants, and poor people.  She helped organize the Denison House, a settlement house, with other women friends and colleagues in 1892.  She wrote and spoke extensively about the need for social reform and was an avid advocate for the global peace movement that emerged after World War I, especially to establish the League of Nations.  Long an active Republican, Bates broke with the party to endorse Democratic presidential candidate John W. Davis in 1924 because of Republican opposition to American participation in the League.  She declared herself a global citizen and decried the American policy of isolationism.

This statue of Bates stand before the Falmouth Public Library.

Bates died in Wellesley on March 28, 1929, while listening to a friend read poetry to her.  She is buried in Oak Grove Cemetery at Falmouth.  Most of her papers are housed at the Wellesley College Archives. 

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