Monday, July 22, 2019
July 22, 2019: American Anthems: “America the Beautiful”
[On July 22, 1893, Wellesley Professor Katharine Lee Bates first composed the words to what would become “America the Beautiful.” So this week I’ll AmericanStudy “America” and other national songs, leading up to a special weekend post on 21C nominees for new anthems!]
On three forms of patriotism found in one iconic song.
From its title to its final “sea to shining sea,” much of Katharine Bates’s “America the Beautiful” embodies a straightforward, celebratory version of patriotism. Those celebrations focus, as they often do, on mythic images of the nation’s natural wonders—that is, while natural elements such as “spacious skies” and “waves of grain” are of course genuinely part of the American landscape, phrases such as “purple mountain majesties” reveal that Bates is viewing those natural elements through tinted lenses. Elsewhere in this space I’ve called this straightforwardly celebratory version of patriotism the “easy” kind, but it’s fair to say that it also often relies on these kinds of hyperbolic images, a sense of the nation’s genuine wonders that uses mythic descriptions of those elements rather than simply highlighting their actual details. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with exaggerated descriptions, of course; but it’s telling that a song focused on the nation’s natural beauties can’t simply describe those beauties accurately or without also relying on such mythic images.
While such mythic images might make it harder to see and engage with the nation’s darker realities, I think it’s a second version of patriotism, one also found in Bates’s lyrics, that more fully limits our ability to be critical patriots. Bates’s second verse is less frequently sung but particularly telling, as it opens, “O beautiful for Pilgrim feet, whose stern impassioned stress/A thoroughfare for freedom beat, across the wilderness.” It’s not surprising that an 1890s poem would identify the Pilgrims as an American origin point, but Bates goes further here, both in connecting that community to “freedom” (despite their already well-known efforts to limit it among themselves) and especially in describing the America they encountered as a “wilderness.” Bates famously first wrote these words during a trip to Colorado’s Pike’s Peak, an area that had (like much of the West) within the prior couple decades been stolen from native peoples. While this is only a couple lines in the song overall, it links Bates’s imagined beautiful nation to a white supremacist version of patriotism, one from which Native Americans have been removed as thoroughly and wrongly as they were from lands like Colorado’s.
There’s no way to read “America the Beautiful” without recognizing the presence of those celebratory and white supremacist forms of patriotism, but reading it only through those lenses would nonetheless be an over-simplification. Besides the Pilgrims, the song’s other specific historical community are Civil War soldiers, those “heroes” who “proved, in liberating strife/Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life.” And in its final couple verses, “America” links that recent sacrifice to a broader, critically patriotic perspective, a “patriot dream that sees beyond the years/Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears.” While the lyrics don’t specify the contemporary causes of those tears (understandable in a brief, anthemic text), lines like this nonetheless communicate the gap between Bates’s current nation and the idealized one for which her text strives. Which comprises a distinct, important critically patriotic complement to the song’s mythic and celebratory sides, and makes this a genuinely multi-layered national anthem.
Next anthemic post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other national songs you’d highlight?