Where are the purple mountains?
Seriously, am I just ignorant or something? The song refers to “Purple Mountain Majesties” but where are they? America’s got plenty in the way of amber waves of grain and two shining seas (that are actually oceans), but I find purple mountains nowhere. The Rockies are not purple, nor are the Appalachians. Both ranges are very much white through most of the year.
I Google searched “purple mountains” expecting to find out why someone thought there were some in America, and here’s what I found:
“Purple Mountain or Zijin Shan (Chinese: 紫金山, Zĭjīnshān, lit. “Purple-Gold Mountain”) is located on the eastern side of Nanjing in Jiangsu province, China. It is 447.1 m (1467 ft) high, with the lowest point 30 m (98 ft). Its peaks are often found enveloped in mysterious purple and golden clouds at dawn and dusk, hence its name.”
Oh, so I guess Katharine Bates (writer of “America the Beautiful”) just got her geography mixed up by a few thousand miles. That’s understandable; magical purple mountain ranges in China are commonly confused with America’s not-magical and entirely normal-looking mountain ranges. By the way, the “Purple” mountains look like this…
But there are other things in the poem that make as much sense as purple mountains. For example: in stanza 2 where Katie Bates is all like:
“O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!”
Firstly, that’s not even catchy. Who’s going to remember that?
Secondly, what is so beautiful about pilgrim feet? They probably stink since they’re in those leathery boots all the time, trudging across the wilderness and getting small pox and whatnot. …Oh, and speaking of small pox…
What do you mean they brought freedom across the wilderness???
Okay, sorry, let’s forget about the Native Americans for a second like we have for the past four-hundred years… Maybe the next stanza will be less glaringly historically awkward.
“O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife.
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!”
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness
And every gain divine!”
The Georgians kicked the Cherokee off their traditional lands in 1830 because there was gold on those lands. I guess they had good reason to do so after all since the gold was refined by God and whatnot. Since “every gain [is] divine” I guess the Cherokee have nothing to complain about. Right?
Okay, so besides trying to rationalize horrid mistreatment of Native Americans, what is this song doing for us right now? I’m not entirely sure. The next stanza talks about “alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears!” which either means no one cries in America (which throws the trail of tears into a well of doubt) or it means our cities are going to gleam no matter how miserable the people are, which; judging by my trip to Atlanta, is the case.
Am I missing something? The next stanza repeats the original (and inaccurate) description of the landscape, adding in “enameled plains” which I guess is what you wish you had when your plains get a cavity. The stanza after that repeats the pilgrim stanza. Then the next one has this neat phrase “God shed his grace on thee/ Till selfish gain no longer stain/ The banner of the free!”
Maybe the point is in the song’s conclusion. Many songs end with their most important line, kind of like a thesis statement about what they have been trying to tell you throughout the melody. Let’s see…
God shed his grace on thee
Till nobler men keep once again
Thy whiter jubilee!”
Katherine Bates (unfortunately not related to actress Kathy Bates) wrote “America the Beautiful” in 1893. She was on a kind of hiking trip with a bunch of teachers and was so moved by the view at the top of Pike’s Peak that she jotted down the first stanza, which most of us remember. She then went back and wrote in all the stuff about white power and greed being good later.
Little did we know that the patriotic song we sung as kids in elementary school was available for negative interpretation. Nor did I know that I could write so much about purple mountains that don’t actually exist.