As we approach July 4th and all it means to those of us who call this place “home,” it seems fitting to talk about how the country has been depicted in verse, especially America the Beautiful. One can miss something very important when merely singing the lyrics: one can miss the colors, the energy, and the history. All of that tone and texture came shining through on June 13 when educator and author Melinda Ponder spoke at the Mattapoisett Public Library.
Ponder was there to discuss her latest book on another educator and author, Katherine Lee Bates, famous for penning the poem that has become the beloved America the Beautiful.
But before we discuss Ms. Bates, let’s get back to her historic poem. The colors are there, gleaming amber, gold, and purple. And if you listen, she’ll transport you with words like spacious, fruited, shining, liberating, and undimmed.
Ponder tells us that, through travel, a rather novel activity for a woman to experience alone in the 1800s, Bates found the inspiration to write words to the song some often say should be our national anthem.
Ponder’s book, Sea to Shining Sea, follows Bates through her years of study and teaching at Wellesley Collage to travels that took her to exotic ports of call. And while her friends and female associates were doing what most women of that era were expected to do, marry, Bates delved into her studies and dreamed of faraway places.
Bates’ early life would certainly shape her intellect. Her mother was an educated woman who attended Wellesley, married a clergyman, and became a widow one month after Katherine was born. The next decade or more would find the family frequently moving to make ends meet. Spending the Civil War years in Falmouth, Ponder explained, exposed Bates to not only the adventures of sea travel as ships arrived and departed from the harbor, but also the impact of war as troops marched down Main Street headed south for battle.
Ponder said that the assassination of Lincoln, although occurring when Bates was a young girl, left a deep impression on the child. “The nation’s sorrow was her own…”
During those years, Bates would see widows struggling to support their families, working hard, and managing it all with creative imagination and brawn. “She was learning that women had to be capable,” Ponder believes.
In adulthood, Bates’ studies and her desire to travel the world would be the gateway by which she could explore, but moreover, inject into her written works a deeper insight into the human condition.
From her travels throughout America, Bates observed the vast open spaces, the plains, mountains, and the seas. Ponder said Bates traveled far and wide throughout the country and relished all that she saw firsthand. Bates also witnessed the darker side of a country growing through industrialization, observing with her own eyes the evils of sweatshops and over-crowded tenement buildings.
Bates was a prolific writer throughout her lifetime. From publishing a magazine geared towards youth, to a groundbreaking book on American literature, to writing for The New York Times, she was a Renaissance woman.
Bates’ most famous poem, one could easily argue is, America the Beautiful. Many of us know it by heart.
The poem, on closer examination, tells us about her travels across a country that was just beginning to march towards its esteemed position in the world. Through her eyes, we see the endless plains, the mountaintops, and the seas. We breathe in the rarified air of Pike’s Peak and we glimpse the Pacific for the first time. We also visualize the Founding Fathers penning The Constitution, soldiers fighting for freedom and the unity of the country, as well as divine providence guiding the way. We see Bates’ America, possibly an America we are still striving to create.
Ponder has researched Bates for many years with this latest book being her third biography on a woman whose footsteps she has followed. Ponder has traveled across the globe to find Bates waiting, and she has poured through boxes of documents and Bates’ personal papers to understand more fully a woman of great intellectual depth.
“I found her diaries,” said Ponder. “I could hear her voice!”
Ponder is also a scholar of Nathaniel Hawthorne and has written extensively about an author that Bates herself knew in life.
To learn more about Melinda Ponder you may visit www.melindaponder.com.
By Marilou Newell