Book Excerpt: America the Beautiful

But it wasn't until I started poring through the archives — a rich lode of letters, diaries, and loving tributes — that I appreciated Bates' talent and creativity and saw how her life spanned the great sweep of America's century of progress. Katharine Lee Bates had a childhood memory of Lincoln's assassination and a grownup's awe at the new invention called radio. At 35 she learned to ride a giant tricycle and admitted she was "some scared." At 65 she abandoned her Republican roots to vote Democrat because she believed the League of Nations offered "our one hope of peace on earth." That was just four years after women won the right to vote, a cause Katharine Lee Bates endorsed.

Her life blossomed as the nation's social conscience awakened. Bates entered Wellesley one year after it opened and spent her life educating other women. At a time of ingrained patriarchy, she was among the handful of women in the workforce, earning enough independence through her teaching and writing to travel freely and own her own house. In an age of material excess she was aligned with movements to care for the nation's poor. The public knew her as a beloved teacher and respected poet who published or edited more than forty books and encouraged young talents like Robert Frost and Amy Lowell. Privately, she worried about her weight, made up silly games to play with the children of friends, and was devoted to her dog named Hamlet and her parrot named Polonius. Her whimsical sense of humor enlivened everything. Students were abuzz one day over the note attached to the professor's door: "Miss Bates regrets, since probably no one else will, that she will be unable to attend class today."

The contemporary newspaper and magazine articles I read attested to her celebrity and made me realize that her trip out West in the momentous summer of 1893 - when she wrote the lines to "America the Beautiful" — was not just a sightseeing jaunt to Niagara Falls and the Chicago World's Fair and Pike's Peak, but a cultural reflection of the emerging power and idealism of a young nation. It was also the year that America invented the picture postcard, a lively new craze that graphically illustrates the self-confidence of a country on the move. As I dug further into the history of the song, I discovered the intriguing drama behind the music, written in a moment of Victorian inspiration by Samuel Augustus Ward and elevated to new heights in our own day. Ward's role has frequently been overlooked, perhaps because so little is known about him, or perhaps because the tune's association with the words was almost accidental. But a famed classical performer recently told me he found "America the Beautiful" to be "organic. It's as if you turned over a rock and came upon the song all at once." And another modern master, Marvin Hamlisch, confirmed the unrivaled power of Ward's music through its cadence and structure.

For the first time I also understood how very American the song is. And what it really means. Why "liberating strife"? What are "alabaster cities" anyhow? And where did a woman from Cape Cod come up with "amber waves of grain"?

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