This ought to be the national anthem, if you ask me.
In 1893, a Massachusetts professor called Katharine Lee Bates was giving a series of summer lectures on English literature at Colorado College, in Colorado Springs. “One day,” she recalled, “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.”
Professor Bates had not previously traveled in the Rockies or seen much of her country at all beyond New England, and the unbounded beauty of the land awed her – and inspired her. It was “the most glorious scenery I ever beheld, and I had seen the Alps and the Pyrenees,” she said. “My memory of that supreme day of our Colorado sojourn is fairly distinct even across the stretch of 35 crowded years,” Miss Bates wrote a year before her death in 1929. “We stood at last on that Gate-of-Heaven summit, hallowed by the worship of perished races, and gazed in wordless rapture over the far expanse.”
Though she insisted “the sublimity of the Rockies smote my pencil with despair”, she was not “wordless” for long. “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”:
Oh beautiful for spacious skies
For amber waves of grain
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
She put them down on paper that evening in her room at the Antlers Hotel. Today you’d be hard put to find a quatrain known to more Americans. Whether it’s Gary Larson’s “Far Side” cartoon of Columbus approaching land and saying, “Look! Purple mountains! Spacious skies!…Is someone writing this down?” or Rush Limbaugh at noon eastern welcoming listeners “across the fruited plain” to his daily radio show, every anchorman, cartoonist, comedian or advertising copywriter who evokes those words is assured that they’re as instantly familiar to his audience as any lines ever written in American English.
One way or another many of the patriotic underpinnings of 20th century America derive from the 1893 Exposition: the Pledge of Allegiance was written for it, and Columbus Day became a national holiday because of it. But its greatest gift to the nation was “America The Beautiful” – for without the fair in Chicago Katharine Lee Bates would never have set off on her great voyage of discovery. On July 3rd, the two Katharines caught the train to Colorado and the following day, Independence Day, she sat in the car and watched – what’s the word? – waves of Kansas wheat rolling by. She was, she confided to her diary, “a better American for such a Fourth”.
This Fourth of July, Americans will sing the first verse, which at most performances nowadays is all we hear. But Miss Bates had more to say than mere topographic description.
It’s another of Steyn’s brilliant musical magnum opuses (opi? opii?!? oh, the hell with it) so you already know it’s fascinating. As for making it the national anthem, I ain’t alone in that by any means; the inimitable Ray Charles thought so too, and made the most sublime case for it imaginable.
The only argument I can see against making the switch is that it would have to be sung, each and every time, by…Ray Charles. Nobody did it like he did.