America the Beautiful: The Stirring True Story Behind Our Nation's Favorite Song

America the Beautiful: The Stirring True Story Behind Our Nation's Favorite Song

by Lynn Sherr


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We've all sung it a thousand times, and most of us know at least the first verse by heart. "America the Beautiful" has been called a hymn, a prayer, even the "national heartbeat set to music." Numerous proposals and half a dozen bills in Congress have tried to replace our national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," with this more lyrical, less militaristic song. But who knows the story behind the song? In America the Beautiful, Lynn Sherr tells the story of Katharine Lee Bates, a poet and pioneering young English professor at the newly established Wellesley College, who penned "America the Beautiful" at age 33, as she gazed over the glorious panorama from the top of Pike's Peak, Colorado. The poem, published two years later on July 4, 1895, struck a chord. Americans embraced it and immediately set it to music, trying out at least 74 different melodies. There were even Mexican, Canadian, and Australian versions. Analyzing the lyrics of "America the Beautiful" and the story of Katharine Lee Bates's unusual life, Lynn Sherr opens a window onto the shifting world of late 19th century America. She explores the lingering impact of the Civil War and the dramatic developments in commerce and technology, which shaped the American Century and the popularity of one brilliant, stirring song.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780756767433
Publisher: DIANE Publishing Company
Publication date: 07/28/2003
Pages: 125

About the Author

Lynn Sherr, correspondent for ABC News 20/20, has written books on several subjects about which she is passionate, including Tall Blondes: A Book About Giraffes and Failure is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in her Own Words. She lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

But the crowning moment -- what Katharine Lee Bates later called the "supreme day of our Colorado sojourn" -- came towards the end of the lecture session, when the visiting teachers were invited on an excursion to the top of the mountain that towered over the town. It was an irresistible magnet for travelers and tourists alike. Admired for centuries by Native Americans, then Spanish explorers, it took its name from Zebulon Montgomery Pike, the young army officer who sighted it in 1806.

...At 14,110 feet, Pike's Peak was not the tallest of the Rockies, nor was it the most daunting. True, Lt. Pike and his men had been turned back in their ascent by heavy snows, and he is said to have predicted the mountain would never be conquered. But by mid-century a succession of mountaineers had carved a trail to the summit, and in 1858 the first white woman, Julia Holmes, climbed the peak wearing bloomers and Indian moccasins.

What made it so enticing was its location: smack on the edge of the Great Plains, the first grand feature a prospector or settler would spot on the way to the Golden West. They painted its name on their wagons as a symbol of Yankee determination -- "Pikes Peak or Bust!" And while more than a few returned East with "Busted" scrawled over their hopes, the allure of the peak with the snow glistening on its cap never dimmed.

On Saturday, July 22, 1893, Katharine Lee Bates got her chance to meet the famous mountain. The cog railway that had been opened a few years earlier wasn't operating that day, so the professors piled into a horse-drawn wagon with the pioneers' slogan emblazoned on its tailboard. At first the twisting path took them upwards through thick pines and brilliant wildflowers, a breathtaking landscape, but after they reached the halfway house and exchanged their horses for sturdy mules, the scenery changed dramatically. As they bumped along the narrow carriage road, with its perilous turns and precipitous dropoffs, the woods were replaced by "a waste of dead white stems, a ghostly forest." Huge boulders and dusty rocks threatened every step. The journey took hours, and the merry party grew hungry, but when an astronomer in their midst warned them of the danger of altitude sickness, the lunch baskets went untouched.

As they reached the Gate-of-Heaven summit -- nearly three miles high in the clear crystal air, above the clouds and beneath the radiant blue heavens -- Katharine fell silent. Regrettably, some of their party took ill and fainted, cutting short their stay at the top. But for Katharine Lee Bates her "one ecstatic gaze" at the panoramic view across the vast continent was a revelation. To the east, the sweep of plains across America's heartland; to the west, the regal mountains that defined the pioneers' dreams. That night when she returned to the Antlers Hotel, she wrote in her diary, "Most glorious scenery I ever beheld." More significantly, she opened her notebook and jotted down some verses that had come to her on the spot: "O beautiful for..."

Here is her own recollection: 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.

No matter how many times she told the story, Bates always invoked the same mystical, almost divine imagery: The words of the poem "sprang into being." They were "promoted in my mind," they "floated" into consciousness. There was even a certain sense of destiny in the way Bates referred to the "notebook that was traveling with me." Never did she recall actually sitting down and thinking the lines up or writing them all down.

Much later, after the song became part of our national psyche and the author a genuine celebrity, Bates told a newspaper reporter in characteristic modesty that the song's success -- "so accidental and so simple" -- was due to the people, not to herself. As for the poem, "I have come to see that I was its scribe," she said firmly, "rather than its author."

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America the Beautiful: The Stirring True Story Behind Our Nation's Favorite Song 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Look at the subject first. In reading this book I learned what this song is better than the star-sangled banner I think this book is a great read for everyone and etc.