When you hear “America the Beautiful,” poet Katharine Lee Bates’s love and awe for her country is apparent as is her faith in God. Get beyond the first verse, though, and you hear something more, and 117 years after the poem’s first publication, the issue she raises feels familiar.
Bates (1859-1929) was a professor of English at Wellesley College. She was inspired to pen the poem during an 1893 cross country trip, in which she saw the White City during the World’s Fair in Chicago and the view from Pike’s Peak, Colorado, according to the Falmouth (Massachusetts) Historical Society. The poem was first published two years later and was revised in 1904 and 1911. The melody we associate today with “America the Beautiful” was written in the early 1900s.
Citing a book by Lynn Sherr, David Firestone points out in a New York Times blog that Bates might not have been satisfied with where her country was going.
One of the verses ends with:
God shed his grace on thee
Till selfish gain no longer stain
The banner of the free!
Bates lived during the so-called Gilded Age. Perhaps, she read about industrialists’ lavish lifestyles such as Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish throwing a dinner party to honor her dog who wore a $15,000 diamond collar. The price for that jewelry was more than the earnings of vast majority of Americans–11 million out of the nation’s 12 million.
The average income of the bottom 92 percent was $380 a year. Bates must have known of tenements teeming with crime and filth. (My source for conditions of the Gilded Age is American Experience.)
Today, it’s not difficult to imagine why Bates would have penned those lines. I feel that same anger when I see hard-working people struggling to pay their bills and keep their homes while executives are paid hundreds of millions of dollars after ruining their companies.
Despite the song’s popularity, neither Bates nor Samuel Ward, who composed the music, profited from it. Bates gave permission to anyone who wanted to use the poem, as long as they didn’t change the words.
Bates’s poem shows that one can love one’s country deeply and still say where it can do better.