To read Melinda Ponder’s illuminating biography of Katharine Lee Bates, “Katharine Lee Bates: From Sea to Shining Sea” is to rediscover a woman you thought you knew. You knew she was born in Falmouth, that she was a Wellesley professor, and that she wrote “America the Beautiful.” Ms. Ponder’s story includes all of the above and much more. Katharine Lee Bates was an outspoken voice for the poor, for immigrants, for women’s rights, and for the voiceless victims of war.
Ms. Ponder rightly places Ms. Bates in the context of her era: the turbulent late 19th century. In her expansive narrative, Ms. Ponder tells how an idealistic, independent woman responded to the challenges posed by her world.
Katharine Lee Bates was born in Falmouth in 1859. Her father, William Bates, was a minister of the First Congregational Church. He died shortly after her birth, leaving his wife and four children close to poverty. Ms. Bates’s educated and resourceful mother held the family together.
Ms. Ponder describes Ms.Bates’s childhood in a slowly vanishing Falmouth “…where sloops, schooners, and fishing boats bobbed in nearby Vineyard Sound while sheep and cows grazed in neighboring fields.” An entry from her first diary is prophetic: “…there is a charm in bright clean unfilled pages which I, for one, cannot resist.”
In 1870 her mother moved the family closer to Boston where her two sons could more easily find work. Ms. Bates excelled at local public schools and in 1876, entered Wellesley College, made possible by a brother who came up with $250 for the annual tuition.
College-educated women were uncommon then. The conventional view, writes Ms. Ponder, was “…that hard study would destroy women’s health and make them unfit for childbearing since thinking might divert blood to the brain from their reproductive organs.”
Wellesley’s founders had a more accurate view of women’s physiology, offering courses in Latin, Greek, history, philosophy, literature, rhetoric, mathematics, chemistry and physics.
Ms. Bates was a popular student, just beginning to see herself as a professional writer. When she graduated in 1880, she faced a besetting dilemma: how could she devote time to writing poems and stories and earn the steady income she needed as a single woman? She took up school teaching, what she called “…chalk, mathematics, and mischief…” but found it unsatisfying. Her stories with their well-crafted plots and realistic portrayals of immigrants and intelligent women were appearing in local publications, but the money she earned wasn’t enough to live on.
The chance to earn a steady income came in 1886 when she was invited to join the Wellesley College faculty. There she met women intent on finding solutions to the country’s economic and social problems. One of the teachers, Katharine Coman, was to become her lifelong companion.
Although Ms. Bates supported her friends’ humanitarian efforts, she chose to make the world a better place by writing about it, by creating stories and poems that made people aware of injustice, inequality, oppression, and, especially, the horrors of war.
She published a novel, “Rose and Thorn,” which vividly showed the exploitation of workers under the sweatshop system. Using the pseudonym James Lincoln, she wrote poetry published in The Atlantic Monthly that overtly blamed American imperialism for the Philippine-American War. Great Britain also got a scolding for starting the Boer War to confiscate South Africa’s gold.
Ms. Bates traveled to Spain during the Spanish-American war and wrote “Letters from Spain” for The New York Times. She wanted Americans to see the war’s effect on innocent Spaniards and, in Ms. Ponder’s phrase, to “observe the ‘enemy’ up close.”
At the outset of the First World War, she wrote “Fodder for Cannon,” a powerful anti-war poem. She believed that the formation of a League of Nations would finally bring an end to war. Although Woodrow Wilson failed to make his vision a reality, she published the poem “Idealists” in his honor.
Ms. Bates often ran into prejudice toward women. In 1889, she came back from her grueling trip to Spain in time to hear a speech by President Eliot of Harvard. He said that women’s minds, like their bodies, are not as strong as men’s. He suggested that a college for women should teach “…carriage, address, delicate sympathy, and innocent reserve.”
If Ms. Bates had paid any attention to views like his, she would not have taken a bumpy ride up Pike’s Peak in a mule-driven covered wagon in 1893. There, the majestic view inspired her to write the first few words of “America the Beautiful.”
In pages that are a gift to readers interested in the workings of a poet’s mind, Ms. Ponder brilliantly deconstructs “America the Beautiful.” She compares the 1893 and 1911 versions, pointing out changes reflecting Ms. Bates’s vision of America as a unified nation.
Ms. Ponder’s Katharine Lee Bates was no stranger to the pain of love. She chose not to marry a minister who courted her; without a prominent position, he couldn’t support her. In her day, marriage to him meant giving up all that she had attained: life as a popular writer, a respected literary scholar, and an eminent professor. Ms. Ponder suggests that her love for Ms. Coman was a competing force.
Ms. Bates died in 1929. Her ashes are buried in Falmouth.
Melinda Ponder’s beautifully written biography is relevant in our own troubled times. Katharine Lee Bates was a woman whose love of America was never blind to its flaws.
Barbara Kanellopoulos is a Falmouth resident and retired teacher.