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LGBT History – “America the Beautiful”

Originally posted by REI, September 18, 2010

Among our nation’s most famous pieces of poetry is that which underlies the song, “America the Beautiful”. On several occasions, it has been proposed to replace “The Star Spangled Banner” as our national anthem. Its author was a young Wellesley College English professor named Katharine Lee Bates.

Almost everbody in this nation knows the words. Few know that she was a lesbian. This is her story.

Bates was born to a poor family in Falmouth, Massachusetts, and later moved to Grantville, near Wellesley. Wellesley was soon to be the home to a new women’s college, and attending the school became Katharine’s goal in life.

She took advanced courses and started teaching at the high school to build up credentials, ultimately becoming accepted into their second graduating class. She excelled in the school, but in no field more than poetry. Her favorite activity was to retire to the Browning room and study the works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Three years after graduating as class president, she was accepted to teach English at Wellesley.

In 1893, at age 33 and now English department chair, Bates took a train ride from Wellesley, Massachusetts to Colorado Springs, Colorado to teach a summer school session at Colorado College. She marvelled at the countryside as she travelled.

One day some of the other teachers and I decided to go on a trip to 14,000-foot Pikes Peak. We hired a prairie wagon. Near the top we had to leave the wagon and go the rest of the way on mules. I was very tired. But when I saw the view, I felt great joy. All the wonder of America seemed displayed there, with the sea-like expanse.

At this time, Bates was already a prolific poet (much of her poetry published under a male pseudonym — “James Lincoln” — to increase its audience). The beauty of the view from atop Pike’s Peak inspired her most famous work, “America the Beautiful”. She left Colorado springs with the notes for all four stanzas, but the poem itself was not published until in 1895 in The Congregationalist.

O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, For purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain! America! America! God shed His grace on thee, And crown thy good with brotherhood From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet, whose stern impassioned stress A thoroughfare for freedom beat Across the wilderness! America! America! God mend thine every flaw, Confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law!

O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife, Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life! America! America! May God thy gold refine, Till all success be nobleness, and every gain divine!

O beautiful for patriot dream that sees beyond the years Thine alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears! America! America! God shed His grace on thee, And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea!

The poem was very well received. A series of revisions would later see it published in the Boston Evening Transcript in 1904, leading to growing national fame. In 1920, a contest was established to set the poem to music, and the rest, as we say, is history.

ou will find all of this in your average biography of Bates. The only thing that they often leave out, however, is the single most important thing to her in her life: her partner, Katharine Coman. Until recently, in most histories of “America The Beautiful” and its author, Coman was written out of nearly every scene in Bates’ life.

Bates became close to Coman at Wellesley, where Coman was a professor of History. It was Coman herself who appointed Bates to her position. They started becoming close in 1887, and in 1890, they moved in together in what was then known as a “Boston Marriage”.

Love Planted A Rose

Love Planted a rose, And the world turned sweet, Where the wheatfield blows Love planted a rose. Up the mill-wheel’s prose Ran a music beat. Love planted a rose, And the world turned sweet.

They lived the American dream together. They bought a small home that they nicknamed “Scarab”, got a collie who they named “Sigurd”, and an early automobile which they named “Abraham”. Whenever they parted, they wrote almost daily love letters to each other:

Your love is proof of God. How does love come, unless Love is?… That is a glorious sentence wherewith to close your letter. I love it and I love you and I love what shadowy hint of God comes to me.

While “the two Katharines” lived in Massachusetts, their hearts remained with the American west. Coman wrote some of the first works on the economy of the old west, including “Economic Beginnings of the Far West”. They took every opportunity to travel west together, including Bates’ fateful 1893 trip to Pike’s Peak. Along the way they had stopped in Chicago to visit a newly-built monument to women’s accomplishments in the arts and sciences, and admired statues of women’s rights pioneers such as Susan B. Anthony.

The two also had another devout committment: that to equal rights for the poor. They cofounded the College Settlements Association in 1887, a program which helped send female graduates to spend time among the European poor arriving on America’s shores. In 1892, Coman helped open Denison House in Boston, which became a center of labor organization in the United States. Coman sided with the workers during the 1894 Pullman strike, and travelled to Chicago in 1910 to help striking seamstresses win union rights. She began writing another work on a then radical topic: “Unemployment Insurance: A Summary of European Systems”.

And then disaster struck: Katharine Coman developed breast cancer.

Through those four years beset with wasting pain The surgeon’s knife again and yet again … So we twain Finished your book beneath Death’s very frown. For all the hospital punctilio, Through the drear night within your mind would grow Those sentences my morning pen would spring to meet…

Coman’s death in 1915 was an event that Bates would never recover from. Even nearly a decade later, she wrote to a friend:

So much of me died with Katharine Coman that I’m sometimes not quite sure whether I’m alive or not

Bates began work shortly after Coman died on a long volume of poetry, titled “Yellow Clover: A Book of Remembrance, to Katharine Coman”. Despite Bates’ growing popularity from “America The Beautiful”, the sad, longing poems of Yellow Clover proved unpopular, and the book fell into obscurity.

If You Could Come

My love, my love, if you could come once more From your high place, I would not question you for heavenly lore, But, silent, take the comfort of your face.

I would not ask you if those golden spheres In love rejoice, If only our stained star hath sin and tears, But fill my famished hearing with your voice.

One touch of you were worth a thousand creeds. My wound is numb Through toil-pressed, but all night long it bleeds In aching dreams, and still you cannot come.

No more than a memory, love’s afterglow? One quarter century of joy, can it Be all? The lilting hours like birds would flit By us, who loitered in the portico Of love’s high palace. Time enough to know Its court decorum, nor would mind admit Love’s term of learning was not infinite Ah, courtesies my carelessness let go!

That you forsook me ere my love was wise Not wise enough to know if you still are Too pure a light for my enshadowed eyes Or if, unconscious of my very grief Your vanished spirit, beautiful if brief, Be quenched in darkness, like a shooting star.

The title of the book was a reference to a memory that the two of them shared:

Yellow Clover

Must I, who walk alone, Come on it still, This Puck of plants The wise would do away with, The sunshine slants To play with, Our wee, gold-dusty flower, the yellow clover, Which once in parting for a time That then seemed long, Ere time for you was over, We sealed our own? Do you remember yet, O Soul beyond the stars, Beyond the uttermost dim bars Of space, Dear Soul who found the earth sweet, Remember by love’s grace, In dreamy hushes of heavenly song, How suddenly we halted in our climb, Lingering, reluctant, up that farthest hill, Stooped for the blossoms closest to our feet, And gave them as a token Each to each, In lieu of speech, In lieu of words too grievous to be spoken, Those little, gypsy, wondering blossoms wet With a strange dew of tears? So it began, This vagabond, unvalued yellow clover, To be our tenderest language. All the years It lent a new zest to the summer hours, As each of us went scheming to surprise The other with our homely, laureate flowers, Sonnets and odes, Fringing our daily roads. Can amaranth and asphodel Bring merrier laughter to your eyes? Oh, if the Blest, in their serene abodes, Keep any wistful consciousness of earth, Not grandeurs, but the childish ways of love, Simplicities of mirth, Must follow them above With touches of vague homesickness that pass Like shadows of swift birds across the grass. How oft, beneath some foreign arch of sky, The rover, You or I, For life oft sundered look from look, And voice from voice, the transient dearth Schooling my soul to brook This distance that no messages may span Would chance Upon our wilding by a lonely well, Or drowsy watermill, Or swaying to the chime of convent bell, Or where the nightingales of old romance With tragical contraltos fill Dim solitudes of infinite desire; And once I joyed to meet Our peasant gadabout A trespasser on trim, seigniorial seat, Twinkling a sauce eye As potentates paced by.

Our golden cord! our soft, pursuing flame From friendship’s altar fire! How proudly we would pluck and tame The dimpling clusters, mutinously gay! How swiftly they were sent Far, far away On journeys wide By sea and continent, Green miles and blue leagues over, From each of us to each, That so our hearts might reach And touch within the yellow clover, Love’s letter to be glad about Like sunshine when it came!

My sorrow asks no healing; it is love; Let love then make me brave To bear the keen hurts of This careless summertide, Ay, of our own poor flower, Changed with our fatal hour, For all its sunshine vanished when you died. Only white clover blossoms on your grave.

On March 28th, 1929, at the age of 69, Bates died in Wellesley, Massachusetts. She helped develop a sense of pastoral patriotism within our growing nation and left us with one of the most memorable pieces of poetry. She nurtured the growing women’s rights and labor movements.

Let us honor her memory by not writing away from history that which mattered to her the most.



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