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Although she was a noted essayist and tireless defender of Jewish rights, Emma Lazarus is chiefly remembered today for her 1883 poem, ”The New Colossus,” an expression of America as a haven for the oppressed peoples of the world. This poem, with its memorable call to other countries to ”give us your tired, your poor,” was engraved on a plaque and mounted on the base of the Statue of Liberty, which had itself become a welcoming beacon for newly-arriving immigrants in 1903.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Life and Writing
Emma Lazarus was born to a prosperous Jewish family in New York City. Her heritage was Sephardic, a branch of Judaism that had made its home in Spain and Portugal for centuries before being expelled by the government in 1492, the same year
Christopher Columbus reached America. Eventually, some Sephardic Jews began migrating to the New World, with a sizable community existing in America by the time of the American Revolution in 1776.
Like many Sephardic Jews in America, Lazarus’s family was interested in social integration with the larger gentile, or non-Jewish, community around them. The Lazarus family took matters a bit further, in fact, all but turning their backs on their cultural and religious heritage. Lazarus’s father, Moses, was a member of influential social clubs and counted many of New York City’s most prominent businessmen as friends. Lazarus herself was not sent to school, but rather benefited from the best private tutors her father could afford.
Lazarus’s home-schooled education was steeped in literature and the arts. She developed an interest in foreign languages and learned to speak Italian, French, and German. She also began writing poetry at the age of eleven, as well as translating poetry from French and German sources. In 1866, at the age of seventeen, Lazarus’s poems were privately published with financial help from her father. Poems and Translations: Written Between the Ages of Pourteen and Sixteen, containing forty original poems, was reprinted a year later for general distribution. Through her father, Lazarus was able to send a copy of her book to Ralph Waldo Emerson at his home in Massachusetts. Emerson, sixty years old at the time and considered one of America’s greatest living poets, wrote back to Lazarus with praise and constructive criticism, thus beginning a long and fruitful correspondence between the two poets.
Lazarus continued to write poetry under Emerson’s influence, and gradually she began to develop a name for herself. Her poetry began to appear in Lippincott’s, the leading literary magazine of the day, and she published her second poetry collection, Admetus and Other Poems, in 1871. The collection was well-received both in America and particularly in England, where Lazarus drew comparison to another living legend of poetry, Robert Browning. Lazarus also tried her hand at novel writing, publishing Alide in 1874. The book was based on the life of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a German philosopher whose work she had translated.
In 1876, the Lazarus family unit was broken up by the death of Lazarus’s mother. Shortly thereafter, Lazarus had a chance to finally meet her mentor, Emerson, at his cottage in Concord. After returning to New York, Lazarus branched out into essay writing, critical interpretations, biographical profiles, and book reviews, steadily earning a name for herself in the city’s literary world. She also began to question the importance and validity of her work.
“Give Us Your Tired, Your Poor …”
It was during this period of introspection that Lazarus was asked to translate a series of medieval Jewish hymns from German and Hebrew. Although her family had never been particularly religious, Lazarus began to develop an active interest in Jewish culture and history and in the injustices that were being visited upon Russian Jews in her own time. In a series of pogroms, or state-sponsored raids and massacres, Jewish villages in Russia had been attacked and burned, forcing hundreds of thousands of Jews to seek asylum in foreign lands. Many had headed for America, most arriving in New York City. It was during this wave of Jewish immigration, in 1886, that the Statue of Liberty, a gift from France to the United States on the occasion of its centennial, was erected on New York’s Ellis Island. The statue quickly became an iconic symbol of freedom to the millions of immigrants who came to America seeking a better way of life.
Lazarus, meanwhile, had begun devoting herself to advocacy on behalf of the newly-arriving Jewish immigrants. She led programs to teach the new arrivals valuable technical skills so that they would be able to quickly become productive members of society. She wrote in defense of the plight of the Russian Jews, and her poetry began to deal almost exclusively with Jewish themes. Her new poetry, along with a verse-drama about Jews being burned at the stake during the Black Death of 1349, was published in Songs of the Semite (1882). She also wrote ”An Epistle to the Hebrews,” an impassioned argument for American Jews to embrace their culture. The essay was controversial, largely due to its open advocacy for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, which at the time was a province of the Ottoman Empire. Lazarus was one of the first Americans to take up this position and was well ahead of her time—many of her fellow members of the Jewish community criticized her for her position on Palestine.
The poem for which Lazarus is chiefly remembered, ”The New Colossus,” was written during these heady days. Written in 1883 after a successful literary tour of England, the poem was an ode to the Statue of Liberty, which had not yet been erected. In fact, the poem was written to help raise money for the construction of a pedestal which would support the massive statue.
Death and Immortality
Lazarus was only thirty-eight when she died of lymphoma, a form of cancer, four years after writing ”The New Colossus.” As a result, she did not live to see her words immortalized and become almost synonymous with ”Lady Liberty.” It was through the efforts of one of Lazarus’s friends, Georgiana Schuyler, that the poem was inscribed on a plaque and affixed to the base of the statue in 1903, quickly becoming an iconic piece of American verse and securing Lazarus’s place in American cultural mythology.
Works in Literary Context
As both a woman and a Jew, Lazarus had to fight against a multitude of cultural prejudices. Despite this, her work earned widespread praise, and inspired her to turn her artistic efforts towards making a difference in the world.
Although she did not regard it as one of her greatest poems, ”The New Colossus” was a perfect example of Lazarus’s social activism, a trait she shared in common with many writers and journalists of her day. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, many Americans began to feel bothered about the injustices and abuses they witnessed in their society. The so-called Progressive Movement began as a local, grass-roots effort that eventually spread to state and national government levels. Authors and journalists like Upton Sinclair and Jacob Riis attempted to expose the inhumane conditions many of the country’s poor and working-class were forced to live in, and writers like Lazarus campaigned for recognition of those elements that society at large deemed ”outsiders.”
”The New Colossus” is a call to the other nations of the world to send their ”wretched refuse,” the elements the Old World countries of Europe deemed undesirable, but who were in fact ”huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The title is a reference to the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the World that was raised in the third century BCE. But in Lazarus’s poem, the ”new” colossus is not a symbol of conquering might, but rather a beacon of hope to the rest of the world. It was this sort of optimism that informed many of the Progressive, social activist writers of Lazarus’s day.
The fact that ”The New Colossus” was placed upon the Statue of Liberty was no coincidence. As fifteen million immigrants streamed into America between 1900 and 1915, a strong “nativist” movement sprang up among Americans who, despite also being descendants of immigrants, considered themselves true American natives. Laws began to be passed limiting the number of immigrants allowed into the country, both in the east and the west, where Chinese immigration was virtually banned outright. Although the content and spirit of Lazarus’s poem was quickly eclipsed by a more exclusionary reality, her words continue to provide an ideal towards which the nation can strive.
Works in Critical Context
Upon the publication of her second collection of poetry, Admetus, the Illustrated London News said Lazarus was ”a poet of rare original power.” The year of that collection’s publication, 1871, was the high watermark for Lazarus critically. Many critics predicted her imminent emergence as a major force in poetry. She was generally well-regarded by other writers and intellectuals of her day in spite of her relatively sparse creative output. When she turned her attention to writing on matters of anti-Semitism, she quickly came to be regarded as one of the leading experts on the subject. Unfortunately, Emerson’s refusal to include any of Lazarus’s poems in his 1874 compilation Parnassus effectively spelled the end of her critical popularity, and Lazarus has been little regarded ever since, despite the widespread anthologizing of ”The New Colossus.”
- Vogel, Dan. Emma Lazarus. Woodbridge, Conn.: Twayne, 1980.
- ”Lazarus, Emma.” U*X*L Encyclopedia of World Biography. Edited by Laura B. Tyle. Vol. 6. Detroit:
- U*X*L, 2003.
- ”Emma Lazarus.” Encyclopedia of World Biography. Vol. 9, second ed. Detroit: Gale, 2004.
- ”Lazarus, Emma.” Gilded Age and Progressive Era Reference Library. Edited by Rebecca Valentine. Vol. 3. Detroit: UXL, 2007.
- Kessner, Carole. ”Lazarus, Emma.” Encyclopaedia Judaica. Edited by Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. Vol. 12, second ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007.
- ”Emma Lazarus (1849-1887).” Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Edited by Edna Hedblad and Russel Whitaker. Vol. 109. Detroit: Gale Group, 2002.
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