Emma Lazarus and the huddled masses

July 17, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

We remember Emma Lazarus — if we remember her name at all — for one thing: the poem “The New Colossus,” which is inscribed on a plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty.

The two lines from that poem are two that most of us can repeat:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . .”
In those two lines, Lazarus encapsulated an idea of America that many of us cherish and that seems under constant threat. It’s the idea that America’s doors are open and that we welcome those who have been rejected by other nations or who have chosen to leave for more opportunity for a better life.
Important as that idea and those lines are, Lazarus’ work as a writer extends far beyond the articulation of that ideal. The Poetry Foundation’s short biography of Lazarus says this:

Lazarus was one of the first successful and highly visible Jewish American authors. She advocated for Jewish refugees and argued for the creation of a Jewish homeland before the concept of Zionism was in wide circulation. After the publication of Songs of a Semite, she traveled to England and France and met and befriended poets and writers such as Robert Browning and William Morris. Source: Emma Lazarus | Poetry Foundation

Lazarus was born in 1849 into a wealthy, old-line Jewish family in New York City and became fluent in German and other languages as well as English. Her first collection of poetry, Poems and Translations, which she composed as a teenager, was published privately by her father in 1866 and contained not only her work but translations of famous German and French writers. It drew the attention of notables such as William Cullen Bryant and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Her next book, Admetus and Other Poems, found a commercial publisher in 1871 and was dedicated to “my friend” Emerson. She continued writing through the decade, publishing poetry and essays. When she read George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda and its exploration of Jewish identity, she became interested in Jewish history and especially in Jewish immigration.

For centuries, Jews had been expelled from one country or another, and the more Lazarus found out about that history, the more interested she became. That interest grew into social activism that advocated programs and institutions to help indigent Jewish immigrants coming to America. Lazarus’ work with immigrants and her study of Jewish history led her to be one of the first advocates of establishing a Jewish homeland.

The interest was, of course, reflected in her writing and her poetry. One such poem, “1492,” combined two historical facts: it was the year Jews were expelled from Spain and also the year Christopher Columbus found American shores.

Thou two-faced year, Mother of Change and Fate, 
Didst weep when Spain cast forth with flaming sword, 
The children of the prophets of the Lord, 
Prince, priest, and people, spurned by zealot hate. 
Hounded from sea to sea, from state to state, 
The West refused them, and the East abhorred. 
No anchorage the known world could afford, 
Close-locked was every port, barred every gate. 
Then smiling, thou unveil’dst, O two-faced year, 
A virgin world where doors of sunset part, 
Saying, “Ho, all who weary, enter here! 
There falls each ancient barrier that the art 
Of race or creed or rank devised, to rear 
Grim bulwarked hatred between heart and heart!”

In 1883, she had been asked to write and donate a poem to the efforts to raise money for a base on which to set the Statue of Liberty. At first, she refused but then reversed herself and wrote “The New Colossus.” She donated the poem to an auction for the effort. It was first read at an exhibit for the fundraising effort in 1883, but when the fundraising campaign ended and the exhibit closed, it was largely forgotten.

Lazarus died in 1887 at the age of 38. She never married, and her work and writings never achieved the pinnacle of American letters. A lobbying campaign by a friend of hers resulted in her poem being engraved on a plaque and set in the base of the statue in 1903.

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