ONE hundred years ago a woman sat on the summit of Pike's Peak, Colo., gazed out over an endless continent, and conceived the images and metaphors that would later become a de facto national hymn for the United States: ``America the Beautiful.''
Katharine Lee Bates, a professor of literature at Wellesley College, knew that the words of her poem envisioned an ideal America. The ``alabaster cities'' of the last stanza had little relation to the gritty, immigrant-clogged tenements of New York or Chicago.
Miss Bates, however, knew of that other America. Though she lived a cloistered life in Wellesley's halls of learning, she had friends who were active in the women's rights and settlement-house movements of her day. And her own family background, though intellectually rich, was anything but well off.
She knew about the poor of all colors who struggled to survive on minuscule sweatshop or tenant-farm wages, or on no wages at all. She had helped the women of Wellesley, Smith, Bryn Mawr, Radcliffe (then the Harvard Annex), and Vassar organize the College Settlements Association. And she followed and appreciated the work of British social reformers John Ruskin and William Morris.
So her poem, later turned into one of the country's best-loved patriotic songs, is more than a quaint Victorian sentiment. The language - ``purple mountain majesties'' and ``fruited plains'' - may strike some late 20th-century ears as overripe. But Bates wasn't saying that bounty and community were her country's universal realities, only that they ought to be.
To a degree, she was describing the natural and man-made wonders she had seen as she traveled west in that summer of 1893 for a short teaching stint at Colorado College - not only the ``amber waves of grain,'' but the spectacle of that year's world's fair at Chicago, the ``Columbian Exposition,'' which, to the discomfort of some, included an exhibition devoted to the accomplishments of women. She went west in a spirit of optimism. But as Melinda Ponder, a professor of English and women's studies at Pine
Manor College and a biographer of Bates, points out, ``America the Beautiful'' expresses ``more than optimism - it's a prayer.''
A prayerful attitude toward one's country may have come more easily to Americans a century ago. Rural townships, villages, and small cities were home to a majority of citizens, and these communities were dominated by church steeples in more than the architectural sense. Not that religion has ebbed all that much today. It still helps shape the political and social dialogue. But does a prayerful desire to articulate ideals and persevere toward them - so clear in Bates's words - retain a place in the nation 's consciousness?
``Prayerful'' doesn't have to mean overtly religious or liturgical. It's fundamental meaning is sincerity, depth of feeling, commitment. Do those emotions figure in a political process marked by deal-cutting, constant compromise, and cynicism on the part of both politicians and the electorate?
But was the political realm really much different in Katharine Lee Bates's day? The late 19th century was rife with corruption flowing from the intertwining of entrenched wealth and government. An early version of Bates's poem, published on July 4, 1895, in an influential journal, The Congregationalist, left no doubt where she stood on that fact of civic life. Its third stanza concluded:
God shed his grace on thee
Till selfish gain no longer stain
The banner of the free!
THAT appeal poses a classic American conflict between a cherished ideal - freedom - and one of its practical results - selfish gain. You don't have to look very hard to see these values colliding and rebounding in Washington's current titanic struggle over taxation, deficit reduction, and economic growth. In such struggles, selfishness can surface on any side of the debate, and freedom, of course, will be invoked by all.
The point to remember, perhaps, is that the country's basic dynamic is still at work. Today, as 10 decades back, the processes of government - for all their more recently acquired bureaucratic girth - still rest on and revolve around such ideals as freedom and equality, however poorly those ideals find expression in policy.
Maybe the full validation of national ideals can never come through policy. Maybe that can come only though a person-by-person process of Americans coming to realize they have a responsibility to align their own behavior with the demands of freedom and, especially, equality. Equality, as a guiding value and not just a political theory, requires a leap beyond what statistics, the media, and our own eyes tell us about each other. Equality rests in the realm of common humanity and God-given individuality.
That realm can seem quite distant to people struggling to get by, worried by news of job layoffs and terrorist plots. But it's worth keeping in mind on the nation's birthday. Without it, American patriotism is just another narrow nationalism with the potential to trample both freedom and equality. In this country, perhaps more than most, ideals count.
Bates revised her ``prayer'' for America a number of times as the poem gained in popularity and people asked for more singable words. But she kept a firm grip on the ideals that originally impelled the words. And she sensed the need to enlarge patriotism by linking it to unfulfilled ideals, as the ``alabaster cities'' passage in her final version demonstrates:
O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!