FALL 2007


FALL 2007

George Wallace

America's Poets Corner Inducts Emma Lazarus

Ever wonder who wrote the Pledge of Allegiance? God Bless America? How about "Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor," among the most famous lines in the American national lexicon?

In the case of that third question, the nation was reminded of the author of the words which are emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty when Emma Lazarus (1849-1887), a well known poet, translator, activist and daughter of a prominent fourth generation American family in Jewish New York in the 1800s, was inducted into the Poet's Corner of the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York City in 2006.

A symposium on the Works and Legacy of Emma Lazarus featured John Hollander, David Lehman and others. And an induction ceremony was held the next day, officiated by Cathedral Dean The Very Rev. Dr. James A Kowalski. Cathedral Poet-in-Residence Charles Martin and other poets read from Lazarus’ works.

Lazarus, who was better known in her day as an outspoken supporter of the cause of European Jews, Zionism and other social concerns, was the descendant of Colonial-era Jewish immigrants to America, daughter of a sugar magnate named Moses Lazarus, and niece to the artist JH Lazarus. Hers was a family firmly entrenched in the upper echelons of New York society, and was able to devote her life to the pursuit of literature and other 'high ideals' befitting a woman of her age.

A descendant of the original Sephardic settlers in New Netherlands, Emma Lazarus enjoyed the luxury of spending winters in New York City and summers in Newport, Rhode Island. Her parents hired private tutors, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, who taught the Lazarus children literature, music, and languages (French, German, and Italian). And Emma and her sisters were members of Julia Ward Beecher's Town and Country Club, where the members discussed science and literature.

According to the Emma Lazarus Fund, by the early 1880's, New York was not only the cultural hub of America, it was also the destination point for thousands of Jewish immigrants escaping the Pogroms of Russia. Lazarus was part of the cultural elite of the city, traveled extensively throughout Europe, and became one of the most outspoken Americans on Jewish issues. "She used her celebrity to bring attention to the idea of the resettlement of Jews in Palestine," notes the fund. "She created classes for Jewish immigrants to learn and helped to find them housing in an overcrowded city. She started an organization called the Society for the Improvement and Colonization of East European Jews. She wrote articles on Jewish history and cultural life that were published for both Christian and Jewish readers."

Lazarus's ambitions as a writer began when she was young. In 1866, when Lazarus was 17, her father privately printed her first book, Poems and Translations: Written Between the Ages of Fourteen and Sixteen. Soon afterward, Lazarus met Ralph Waldo Emerson, and they began a correspondence as pupil and mentor that lasted until 1882, when Emerson died.

Lazarus's second book, Admetus and Other Poems, appeared in 1871, and her novel, Alide: An Episode of Goethe's Life, in 1874. She published a verse drama, The Spagnoletto, in 1876. Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, she published poems, essays, letters, and a short story in popular American magazines and newspapers, such as Scribner's, Lippincott's, the Century, and the New York Times.

Between 1882 and 1884, Lazarus's essays appeared frequently in the weekly American Hebrew, her most famous one being An Epistle to the Hebrews, a series of open letters that urged American Jews not to take their privilege and security for granted and advocated that Eastern European Jews immigrate to Palestine. Her well-received book of translations, Poems and Ballads of Heinrich Heine, came out in 1881, and her own poems, Songs of a Semite: The Dance to Death and Other Poems, in 1882.

Lazarus toured England and France in 1883, where she met English poet Robert Browning and poet, artist, and socialist William Morris, as well as other luminaries, including Jewish leaders. After her father's death, Lazarus returned to Europe in May 1885 and traveled in England, France, Holland, and Italy through September 1887. She died of cancer in New York in November 1887.

Two of her sisters, Mary and Annie, published the posthumous two-volume Poems of Emma Lazarus in 1888, which includes a biographical sketch, the first published piece by her elder sister, the essayist Josephine Lazarus; Emma's translations of medieval Hebrew poets such as Judah Halevy; and her last work, prose poems entitled By the Waters in Babylon.

Lazarus's earliest poem with a Jewish theme, first published in 1867 and reprinted in Admetus and Other Poems (1871), "In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport," was written in answer to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "The Jewish Cemetery at Newport."

While Longfellow, speaking as a philo-Semite, stands in the cemetery and declares that the earliest New World Jews have left but dead monuments to a once-living faith and culture, Lazarus--echoing Longfellow's quatrains but speaking with the collective voice of American Jews--enters the oldest extant American synagogue next to the graveyard. Although she finds it empty of present life, Lazarus nonetheless asserts the continuity of Judaism, for "the sacred shrine is holy yet" to the Jews living in America ("Now as we gaze, in this new world of light/Upon this relic of the days of old/The present vanishes, and tropic bloom/And eastern town and temples we behold.")

Throughout her life, Lazarus balanced her American literary identity against her alliance with Jewish causes. In her essays on American literature (1881), Longfellow (1882), and Emerson (1882), she defended the new American literary tradition. Most scholars agree that Lazarus's public identity as a Jewish writer emerged with the huge influx of Eastern European Jews after the 1881 pogroms in Russia. At this time, she began to study Hebrew seriously and worked for the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society as an advocate for Jewish immigrants on Wards Island. And she became involved in establishing the Hebrew Technical Institute and agricultural communities for the immigrants in the United States.

While Lazarus' name has remained a peripheral one in the world of American society and literature, her words -- Give me your tired, your poor -- have remained at the heart of the American political consciousness ever since.

It was in 1883 that Emma Lazarus published the poem, ``The New Colossus" for an auction at the Art Loan Fund Exhibition in Aid of the Bartholdi Pedestal Fund for the Statue of Liberty. The statue was a gift from France called, "Liberty Enlightening the World," honoring two nations who achieved independence through revolution.

The sonnet recasts the classical Greek Colossus of Rhodes, a representation of the pagan sun god, as the "Mother of Exiles," an American version of Deborah, the Mother in Israel in the Book of Judges. Rather than conqueror of the world, this mother is the welcoming, nurturing, and comforting presence of American democracy.

Later, the poem fell away into obscurity while the nation waited for its Lady Liberty. By 1886 the Statue was erected in New York Harbor where President Grover Cleveland said of Liberty, that her light would, "pierce the darkness of man's ignorance and oppression."

Meanwhile Emma Lazarus would not live to understand the full impact of what she had written. She died in 1887 after visiting France and at the time of her death she was noted for her translations of Heine, her patriotic American spirit, and her work against bigotry. The poem she had written for Lady Liberty was not even mentioned in her obituary.

It was not until 1901, that ``The New Colossus" was added to a bronze plaque at the base of the statue. This action took place at the prompting of Emma's long term friend, Miss Georgina Schuyler, who wished to honor the memory of Lazarus' accomplishments.

"Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breath free
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Ever since, the words have become a monument to the notion of America as a land which welcomes the oppressed of other nations, offering them an opportunity to prosper in a free society.

While over the years Lazarus' literary output has not become American canon, her work has been kept alive through the study of Jewish historical groups and women's groups, in particular. The Emma Lazarus Fund has adopted her name as a masthead for their philanthropic work. And more recently senior figures in the literary establishment like John Hollander, who edited her selected poems and in 2005 led a panel discussion at The New York Public Library, expressly designed to "help restore Lazarus' place in the pantheon of great nineteenth century poets."




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