Oh beautiful, for spacious skies . . .
When a committee of men was looking for a national anthem that would be the “national heartbeat set to music,” they believed that a woman need not try to write one, since women were unable to “guide themselves by the rules of right reason.”
Little did they know that Katharine Lee Bates (1859-1929) would write exactly what they were hoping for: Words that would “pervade and penetrate and cheer the land like sunlight.”
At 10 a.m. Monday, Feb. 12, Melinda M. Ponder will be in PebbleCreek to relate the amazing story of how a poem, first published in a church periodical under the title “America,” became the lyrics for America the Beautiful. Ponder is the author of the recently published Katharine Lee Bates: From Sea to Shining Sea, a biography of Bates. Ponder first became intrigued with the poet’s story when she attended Wellesley College and studied English – in the same English department that Bates had established at the school decades earlier.
While Bates is best remembered for the lyrics to the song, she was also a poet, teacher, community builder, social activist and patriot. She worked for labor reform and challenged Americans to make their country the best it could become in its values and literature. Ponder will discuss how Bates’ childhood in a Cape Cod village, her experience as “Katie of ’80" (1880) at the fledgling Wellesley College, her year at Oxford University and her travels around the globe changed and inspired her.
Bates was teaching English at Colorado College during the summer of 1893, when she and other teachers hired a prairie wagon for a trip to the 14,000 foot Pikes Peak. “It was then and there, as I was looking out over the sea-like expanse of fertile country spreading away so far under those ample skies, that the opening lines of the hymn floated into my mind," she later said.
A Boston newspaper published her revised version of the poem in 1904, which was later expanded to the version we know today. It was first published with the current melody in 1910.
Ponder was the coordinator of the English literature and women’s studies programs at Pine Manor College, a small, formerly all-women’s college about the size of Bates’ young Wellesley College. Ponder has written and published numerous articles and essays on Bates, and reviewers have praised her sympathetic treatment of Bates’ work and personal life.
In addition to her fascination with Bates, Ponder is a Nathaniel Hawthorne scholar and wrote two books on that subject: Hawthorne and Women: Engendering and Expanding the Hawthorne Tradition and Hawthorne's Early Narrative Art: Its Origins in Eighteenth-Century Anglo-Scottish Aesthetics.
Tickets to all Monday Morning Lectures are $4 at the door of the Renaissance Theater.