Culture  /  Origin Story

How ‘America the Beautiful’ was Born

The United States’ unofficial anthem, a hymn of love of country.

America, the Beautiful,” Bates’s poem, set to music, became the United States’ unofficial anthem, a hymn of love of country. There are plenty of better poems about America, the land and the people, including Walt Whitman’s “For You O Democracy,” written on the eve of the Civil War: “I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America, / and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies, / I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks.”

You can hear the echoes of Whitman in Bates. You can hear an answer to both of them—an indictment of both of them—in Langston Hughes’s 1936 poem “Let America Be America Again”: “O, let America be America again— / The land that never has been yet— / And yet must be—the land where every man is free.” And you can hear a very different confession of love in Shirley Geok-lin Lim’s 1998 poem “Learning to Love America”: “because my son will bury me here / because countries are in our blood and we bleed them / because it is late and too late to change my mind / because it is time.”

Countries are in our blood and we bleed them. Lim’s poem sounds, at first, more raw than “America! America! God shed His grace on thee,” as if Bates’s poem dates to a simpler America. It does not. Americans of Katharine Lee Bates’s day were as politically divided as Americans of this day—arguably, they were more divided—over everything from immigration to land use to racial justice to economic inequality. And her America was similar to this America in more ways, too: It was wondrous and cruel, rich and poor, merciless and merciful, beautiful and ugly.