Bates, Katherine Lee (1859–1929)

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Bates, Katherine Lee (1859–1929)

Professor and head of the English department at Wellesley College for 34 years and author of "America the Beautiful." Born on August 12, 1859, at Falmouth, Massachusetts; died on March 28, 1929, at Wellesley, Massachusetts; daughter of William Bates (a Congregational minister) and Cornelia Frances (Lee) Bates; attended a village school in Falmouth, Wellesley High School (then Needham High School), Newton High School; attended Wellesley College and Oxford University; lived with Katharine Coman (Wellesley professor of economics); never married; no children.


Phi Beta Kappa, Boston Authors Club; honorary degrees Middlebury, Oberlin, Wellesley Colleges.

Childhood spent in seaport town of Falmouth; moved with widowed mother and three siblings to Wellesley Hills (then Grantville), Massachusetts; entered Wellesley College (1876); elected class poet and permanent president of class of 1880; taught Latin, algebra, and English at Natick High School; taught Latin, Greek, and geometry at Dana Hall, a preparatory school for Wellesley; joined English department at Wellesley (1886); spent time at Oxford to prepare for her M.A. (1890–91); appointed professor and permanent head of Wellesley English department (1891); published children's stories, poetry, scholarly work, and, most enduringly, the lyrics for "America the Beautiful"; named director of International Institute for Girls in Spain; gathered outstanding group of women scholars in Wellesley English department; designated professor emeritus (1925).

Selected publications:

America the Beautiful and Other Poems (Thomas Y. Crowell, 1911); Yellow Clover, a Book of Remembrance, (E.P. Dutton, 1922); Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin, 1930); English Religious Drama (Macmillan, 1893); American Literature (Macmillan, 1897); Sigurd our Golden Collie and Other Comrades of the Road (E.P. Dutton, 1919); Rose and Thorn (Congregational Sunday-School and Publishing Society, 1889); Spanish Highways and Byways (Macmillan, 1900). Also edited numerous English and American classics.

In the summer of 1893, a young New England scholar, recently appointed head of the English department at Wellesley College, made her first journey west, noting along the way the white towers of the World's Columbian Exhibition, the fertile prairies stretching beyond Chicago, and the heat of western Kansas. The traveler's destination was Colorado Springs where she had been engaged to lecture on English religious drama at Colorado College. She found on the summer faculty there the noted realist novelist Hamlin Garland as well as the scholar-politician Woodrow Wilson whom she was long to admire.

It was not, however, her colleagues who were to make that summer memorable for Katherine Lee Bates. It was her decision to join a prairie wagon ascent of Pike's Peak. Since early childhood Bates had expressed herself in verse. Now as she reached the top of the great mountain and gazed at the dramatic panorama spread about her, words flashed into her mind. "O Beautiful for Spacious Skies, for Amber waves of grain. For Purple Mountains Majesties…."

Imaginative reporters would later describe the moment in hyperbole, even fantasy. Bates, so one journalist declared, was a woman athlete who, winning a walking contest up Pike's Peak, in the excitement of her triumph promptly composed the entire text of "America the Beautiful." Dorothy Burgess , Bates' niece and biographer, tells the truer tale. The poet, though inspired on the mountain top, reworked her poem for some time, finally publishing it on the Fourth of July, 1895, in The Congregationalist.

The poem grew in popularity over the years. Many would-be critics offered suggestions for "improvement." A number of musical settings were composed, but the melody of Samuel Ward's "Materna" was most widely adopted. "America the Beautiful" became in time the official song of the Federation of Women's Clubs. Numerous efforts to have it replace the more warlike "Star Spangled Banner" as the nation's official anthem have failed. Bates herself believed that the on-going appeal of "America the Beautiful" was "clearly due to the fact that Americans are at heart idealists, with a fundamental faith in human brotherhood."

Katherine Bates came naturally by her own brand of patriotic idealism, as well as by her devotion

to poetry and scholarship. Her paternal grandfather, the son of a Revolutionary War soldier, had been an ordained minister and president of Middlebury College. Her father William, also a minister, graduated from Middlebury College and Andover Theological Seminary. Her mother Cornelia Bates , whose father was a manufacturer who loved Shakespeare enough to re-read and annotate the Bard's plays, graduated from Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. William and Cornelia were eager to educate their sons and daughters.

The most academically gifted of the four children turned out to be "Katie," the youngest, born at Falmouth in 1859, just a month before her father's early death. The little girl's diaries very soon showed both her lively, critical mind and the quick wit for which she was later to be noted. "Women," the young Bates wrote, "are vixens or old maids or ladies. The worst is an old maid. The vixen next worse. A ladie perfect…. Men think they are more important than women…. Women … are high spirited as a general thing and I am happy to say have become impatient under the restraint men put upon them. So the great question of women's rights has arisen. I like women better than men. I like fat women better than lean." Women's right to a rigorous education was to be the cardinal theme of Bates' life. She seems never to have felt a compulsion to be lean.

Cornelia Bates, widowed and impoverished, was obliged to send her sons into the business world without the education she had enjoyed. The entire family seems to have struggled together to afford their youngest her opportunity. A move from the friendly little seaport town of Falmouth to Grantville, now Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts, brought Katie to Needham, later Wellesley High School, from which she graduated in a class of two in 1874. She was already publishing poems and stories in the Newton Journal, and an ever wider world was opening. With another family move, she was able to spend two more high school years preparing herself for college. That college was, of course, to be the nearby and newly founded Wellesley.

In 1875, the year of Wellesley's founding, higher education for women was still hotly debated. Women could not physically withstand intellectual activity, some still argued. Higher education would make them unfit for marriage and motherhood. Scorn of "bluestockings" and feminists was, in fact, wide spread. Horace Greeley, liberal New York editor, he of "Go West, young man" fame, opined that there was nothing wrong with suffragist agitators which a bouncing baby would not cure. Despite opposition and ridicule, Oberlin College had, in 1837, admitted women and in 1848 granted them A.B. degrees. Hillsdale and Antioch Colleges had soon followed. The Civil War had hastened women's entry into fields hitherto closed to them, and colleges had struggled to meet their needs.

Education for women in the 19th century took several forms. Some schools, both private and state-funded, were, like pioneering Oberlin, co-educational. Some were coordinate colleges such as Harvard and Radcliffe, Brown and Pembroke, sharing faculties but with separate administrations and financing. Wellesley, like its "sisters" Bryn Mawr, Vassar, Smith, and Mount Holyoke, from the beginning admitted only women.

Henry Durant, Wellesley founder and benefactor, was passionately devoted to his project. Son of a small-town lawyer, Durant had made a fortune in the legal profession in Boston but had never been accepted by the Boston elite. His flamboyant and highly effective way with juries seems to have alienated his fellow barristers. Durant was cast in a non-traditional mold. At the death of a dearly loved only son, he was converted to a religious pietism which set him still farther apart from Back Bay Unitarianism. Though continuing his successful business ventures, he left the practice of law which he now considered ungodly and became a Christian evangelist. With his wife Pauline Durant , he set about establishing Wellesley College.

The original Wellesley statutes stated that "The College was founded for the glory of God and the service of the Lord Jesus Christ, in and by the education and the culture of women. It is required that every Trustee, Teacher and Officer, shall be a member of an Evangelical Church, and that the study of the Holy Scriptures shall be pursued by every student throughout the entire college course under the direction of the Faculty."

Students entered a world of restrictions unimaginable to later generations. In four undergraduate years, a Wellesley woman might never, except for vacation periods, be allowed out-of-doors after seven o'clock at night except to view the night-blooming cereus. But there were rich compensations. Henry Durant was no ascetic. In 1873, he deeded to Wellesley some 300 picturesque acres of hills and woodland fronting on Lake Waban. There he personally superintended every detail of the design and building of College Hall which was to be a place of Beauty. Students were furnished with luxuries so marked that Cornelia Bates, despite her joy at the opportunities Wellesley offered, worried that such surroundings might not be suitable for her modestly raised daughter. Cornelia overcame her qualms, however. Older brother Arthur provided $250, and, in the autumn of 1876, 17-year-old Katherine Lee Bates became a student in the institution to which, with brief intermissions, she was to devote the rest of her life.

With his strong belief in female abilities, Henry Durant hired only women teachers, recruiting his faculty from as far away as Michigan and Wisconsin. Faculty and students lived together in College Hall, the former watching over not only the academic progress but the manners, morals, and posture of their charges. In that setting, in loco parentis was no idle term.

Bates, who graduated in 1890 as poet and permanent president of her 43-member class, had published in the Atlantic a poem which drew the praise of the venerable Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Though she would pattern her verse after 19th-century American poets, she did not pattern her life on her noted mentor. Longfellow, graduating from Bowdoin College, had been offered a professorship at his Alma Mater in return for spending a year of study in Europe. Resolved to lead a life in literature, the young man refused the offer.

Bates herself seems at first to have struggled to choose between writing and pedagogy, but pedagogy was for her the winner. For several years, she led the not-too-demanding life of teacher at Natick High School and Dana Hall. Then in 1886, she yielded to Wellesley's lure. In 1890, she went abroad to travel and to study at Oxford University. On her return, she was granted an M.A. and appointed professor and head of the English department.

The study of English literature was not required for graduation, but the courses soon became popular with students. Under Bates, the English department, with its distinguished faculty, was to become Wellesley's largest and most important department. American literature was added to the curriculum and, in the early 20th century, the study of composition. Despite her distinction, Bates received only a meager salary. College teachers were, as a group, ill paid. To add to her income, she made time for her loved "scribbling." The first of her children's books, Rose and Thorn (1889), attracted an enthusiastic readership, and she continued to write both fiction and poetry for children.

According to her own informal listing, she published eight books of poetry for adult readers, among them the privately printed Yellow Clover, a Book of Remembrance, an unusual sonnet sequence honoring her longtime colleague and friend Katharine Coman , a Wellesley professor of economics. For her most popular poem, the lyrics of "America the Beautiful," Bates received no payment except that which had been made by the original publisher. More financially rewarding were her numerous editions of English and American classics—Thomas Heywood's A Woman Killed with Kindness and The Fair Maid of the West, and works by Coleridge, Shakespeare, Ruskin, Hawthorne, and others. Her lively English Religious Drama was in use as a textbook for decades and is currently available in facsimile form.

Bates wrote poetry reviews for Boston and New York papers, inevitably expressing her own critical standards. Poetry without rime was for her deprived of one of its great beauties. She deplored "the small change of cleverness" and did not "care for jazz-like innovations in metre nor showy extravagances." "The Imagists," she wrote, "have done well to call poetry back again to the eyes and ears and call it away from books. But they have done ill in trying to confine poetry to the world of sense, denying the world of spirit." A popular but totally different kind of writing surfaced in 1919 in Bates' Sigurd Our Golden Collie and Other Comrades of the Road which won the praise of the noted collie fancier and author Albert Payson Terhune.

Bates' religious views seem to have been private. "I have no sympathy with materialistic Unitarianism," she wrote. She believed in God, in Christ as divine, and in the gospel of Love, but she was much troubled by the highly pietistic atmosphere of early Wellesley and was willing to continue her teaching only when assured that she would not be required to join an Evangelical Church. Never joining any church, she attended a variety of services, including those of the Church of England and the Catholic Church when she visited Spain.

Bates had a particular fondness for Spain. She was a director of the International Institute for Girls in Spain and lectured there frequently. Essentially conservative, according to her biographer, she seemed not greatly interested in many of the social reforms of her time other than that of education for women. She did, however, join the Consumers' League and the American Association for Labor Legislation. She helped her colleague, Vida Scudder , formulate plans for the College Settlement Association.

In the fall of 1907, Bates returned from a year spent in England, Spain, Palestine, and Egypt and settled in her new home, Scarab, a comfortable brown-shingled house where she would live with her mother, her sister Jeanie, and her long-time friend Katharine Coman. She was once again abroad, this time visiting Spain and Denmark, when, on March 7, 1914, a fire leveled College Hall. She returned to Wellesley to help with reconstruction and new growth.

Bates retired from active teaching in 1925 and died in 1929. Death came quietly while a friend read to her John Greenleaf Whittier's "At Last," a return to the older American poetry she had always loved. The 20th century would see a growth in higher education for women beyond the dreams of its early proponents. By 1993, 55% of the students in American colleges and universities would be women. Katherine Lee Bates was a dedicated member of a generation which helped to make such an expansion possible.


Burgess, Dorothy. Dream and Deed: The Story of Katherine Lee Bates. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1952.

Converse, Florence. Wellesley College: A Chronicle of the Years 1875–1938. Wellesley, MA: Hathaway House Bookshop, 1939.

Hackett, Alice Payne. Wellesley: Part of the American Story. NY: Dutton, 1949.

Hart, James D., ed. Oxford Companion to American Literature. NY: Oxford University Press, 1965.

Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz. Alma Mater. NY: Knopf, 1984.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Newcomer, Mabel. A Century of Higher Education for American Women. NY: Harper and Brothers, 1959.

suggested reading:

Bates, Katherine Lee, and Katharine Coman, eds. English History as Told by English Poets, facsimile 1902 edition. NY: Irvington.

——. The English Religious Drama, reprint of 1893 edition. Temecula, CA: American Reprint Service, 1985.

——. O Beautiful for Spacious Skies. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 1994.

Becquer, Gustavo. Romantic Legends of Spain. Edited by Cornelia F. Bates and Katherine Lee Bates. Reproduction of 1909 edition. Salem, NH: Ayer.


The Bates Papers, Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts.

Margery Evernden , free-lance writer and Professor Emerita, English Department, University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania