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Katharine Lee Bates

author of "America the Beautiful," a poem inspired by her travels across the country

Katharine Lee Bates

Katharine Lee Bates was born in Falmouth, Massachusetts, on August 12, 1859. Her father, a Congregationalist pastor, died when Katharine was only one month old, leaving her mother to raise four children on her own. Fortunately, her mother got assistance from members of her family; in addition, Katharine's siblings did all they could to help bring money into the household. Times were sometimes tough, but the family was able to send Katharine to high school, and then to Wellesley College, from which she graduated in 1880. At Wellesley, Bates was a very popular student, and was elected by her classmates to serve on the committee that drafted the class constitution; she was also elected class president. After graduation she taught at Natick (Massachusetts) High School, until being hired as a teacher by Wellesley.

Bates became a teacher of English literature at Wellesley in 1883, and later became a full professor. In 1890 she was named chair of the English Department. During her long tenure at Wellesley, Bates was also a member of the Pi Gamma Mu honor society for the social sciences, due to her interest in history and politics. She supplemented her salary by writing children's stories, books of verse, textbooks, and travel books.

The work for which Bates is best known was inspired by her many trips across the country. In the summer of 1893, she visited the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and was awed by the sights and architecture seen there. Then, while lecturing at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, she accompanied a group of teachers on a rough prairie wagon ride, a mule ride, and a hike up Pike's Peak. During these trips she scribbled into her notebook the four verses that became "America the Beautiful." The poem was first published in the July 4, 1895, issue of The Congregationalist. Although it met with rave reviews, it gained even greater acclaim after a revised edition was printed in the Boston Evening Transcript on November 19, 1904. The final, expanded version -- the one everyone is now familiar with -- was written in 1913. In the 1920's, the National Federation of Music Clubs sponsored a contest to set the poem to music. The winning entry set it to the music of "Materna," by Samuel A. Ward.

Despite the fame gained from "America the Beautiful," Bates continued all of her teaching and administrative duties at Wellesley until her retirement in 1925. She died at Wellesley on March 29, 1929.

Bates never married. While at Wellesley she lived with Katharine Coman, a history and political economy teacher. The two lived together until Coman's death in 1915.

Other Major Writings

English History as Taught by English Poets, co-written with Coman
Yellow Clover: A Book of Remembrance, written in honor of Coman following her death
The Pilgrim Ship (1926), a collection of poetry

See Also

World's Columbian Exposition

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This page was last updated on 08/12/2018.