Lazarus, Emma (1849–1887)
Lazarus, Emma (1849–1887)
American-Jewish poet, writer and scholar who committed herself to helping Russian-Jewish immigrants, and whose poem "The New Colossus," welcoming immigrants, is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. Born on July 22, 1849, in New York City; died of Hodgkin's disease on November 19, 1887, in New York City; daughter of Moses Lazarus (a sugar refiner and businessman) and Esther Nathan Lazarus; educated privately, at home; never married; no children.
Part of a prosperous and distinguished family; remained in her parents' home throughout her life; began writing in her teens; published first poetry collection (1866); met Ralph Waldo Emerson, an early mentor (1868); first heard about problems of Russian-Jewish immigrants (1881–82); wrote articles countering anti-Semitic attacks (1882); wrote "The New Colossus" (1883); traveled to Europe (1884, 1885–86); "The New Colossus" inscribed on the Statue of Liberty (1903).
Poems and Translations (published privately, 1866, published commercially, 1867); Admetus and Other Poems (1871); Alide: An Episode of Goethe's Life (1874); The Spagnoletto (1876); assorted translations of medieval Spanish-Jewish poets (1879); Poems and Ballads of Heine (1882); Songs of a Semite (1882); An Epistle to the Hebrews (1882–83); "The New Colossus" (1883); By the Waters of Babylon (1887).
Emma Lazarus lived a short and quiet life. She never openly rebelled against her parents, did not travel until she was over 30 years old, never married or had children, never stood on a speaker's podium. Yet, more than a century after her death, her name immediately brings a spark of recognition even to those who know little about the history of American women, or Jewish women, or that one woman with whom Lazarus' name is inextricably linked: the Statue of Liberty.
Emma was born on July 22, 1849, almost exactly one year after the first Woman's Rights convention was held at Seneca Falls, New York. It was a time of political and social turmoil in the United States. Abolitionists were debating states' rights advocates, and North and South were facing off for a major conflict. Across the ocean, a revolution was occurring in Germany which sent a wave of new immigrants to America, and gold had been discovered in California. But the young Emma lived a sheltered life, far from the politics raging around her. Her father Moses Lazarus was a prosperous Sephardic (Spanish) Jewish sugar refiner. He traced his ancestry back to the first 23 Jews to settle in New York in 1654, refugees from an earlier colony in Recife, Brazil. Her mother Esther Nathan Lazarus also came from an old, distinguished line. The Nathan family began in America with Simon Nathan, an English Jew of Sephardic descent who came to the New World in 1773 and actively supported the American Revolution. Descendants of Simon Nathan married into the equally distinguished Seixus, Cordozo, and Lazarus families of Philadelphia and New York. Theirs was the rich society of uptown Manhattan, a refined and exclusive world of private education, elegant homes, fine china, and literary salons.
Emma was the fifth of seven children in the Lazarus household—eldest son Frank had been followed by six daughters. Considered too fragile and sickly for a school environment, Emma studied with tutors at home. By the time she was 13, her father Moses saw in her a unique talent and took personal charge of her education. He supervised her study of languages, literature, and the classics and encouraged her to write.
Until we are all free, we are none of us free.
Lazarus began writing poetry while still a child. By the time she was 17, she had enough for a small collection which her doting father had published at his own expense in 1866, for the benefit of family members. However, her work caught the attention of others in the literary world and was republished commercially one year later under the modest title Poems and Translations.
As a young woman, Lazarus was shy and rarely left home except for visits to family members. Until her poems brought her a small amount of acclaim, she seems to have had few friends outside her extended family circle. Her second book, Admetus and Other Poems, published in 1871, was well received both in the United States and in England, and gave her still more confidence. A novel, Alide: An Episode of Goethe's Life, written in 1874, was also reviewed well. Interspersed with these original writings, all heavily influenced by the literature she read, Lazarus spent considerable energy and talent on translations of other poets. Among her most successful translations were the poems of the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, which first appeared individually, in newspapers and magazines, and then were published in book form in 1881. She also translated medieval Hebrew poetry. Although she had apparently studied some Hebrew, she depended mostly on the original German translations of these for her own renderings.
As she became well known, Lazarus established relationships with many male writers, including Henry James, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell, and John Burroughs. She discussed her own work with them as well as the works of others, mostly through letters. There is no clear evidence that Lazarus ever had any romantic attachments, though rumors and circumstance have linked her with two men. The first was her cousin Washington Nathan, a high-living socialite of her own age, considered very attractive to women. Washington Nathan was accused of murdering his father, Emma's maternal uncle, in 1870, but was acquitted for lack of evidence. Lazarus made no mention of this incident in her poetry and dedicated only one poem ("Lohengrin") to him.
The second man was Charles deKay, literary and art editor of The New York Times and also a poet. Lazarus had become close friends with his sister Helena deKay Gilder and her husband Richard Gilder, editor of Century magazine, and probably met him through that connection. She admired deKay's work and allowed him to escort her to many cultural events in New York City. Biographers have conjectured that Lazarus could not marry him, either because he was a Christian, or due to her unnaturally close relationship with her father. (No one suggested that it may have been deKay himself who rejected the match because she was Jewish.)
Although Emma's family never sought to deny their Jewish identity, they were quite assimilated into Christian society. Moses and Esther Lazarus belonged to the best non-Jewish clubs in New York City, engaged in business relationships with Christians, and from 1870 on, spent their summers in Newport, Rhode Island, completely at home in gentile high society. Emma herself showed no evidence of any strong religious feeling toward Judaism. The Lazarus name appeared on the membership list of Shearith Israel, the oldest and most respected synagogue in New York City, but neither Emma nor her family appear to have attended services. In a letter written in 1877, she explained that her "interests and sympathies" were with the Jews, but "my religious convictions and the circumstances of my life have led me somewhat apart from our people." Lazarus' writings suggest that she had absorbed and believed many of the anti-Jewish stereotypes of her non-Jewish friends and neighbors.
There is more probability that Emma's emotional dependence on her father, Moses Lazarus, was the reason for what was then genteelly called her "spinsterhood." In fact, Moses was charismatic and beloved, the pivotal member of a close and interactive family. None of Emma's five sisters married until after their father died in 1885, and his passing was considered to be an especially hard blow for Emma, acknowledged to be his favorite.
A hint of the conflicts Lazarus may have experienced due to this strong filial affection can be seen in her verse-play The Spagnoletto. The story is set in Renaissance Italy but tells of a woman who, defying her father, runs off with her lover. As a punishment to this disobedient and unfaithful daughter, the father commits suicide before her eyes. Two other works, "The Dance of Death" (later included in her book Songs of a Semite) and an essay on Shakespeare's King Lear, also touch on the theme of father-daughter devotion.
Lazarus' relationship with the aging philosopher and writer Ralph Waldo Emerson is one of the most well known of her friendships. The young poet first met him at a social gathering when she was 19 years old, and agreed to send him a copy of her first collection of poetry. He read it and wrote her encouragingly, praising her talents and giving her advice. Her second collection (Admetus and Other Poems) was dedicated to him. However, when Emerson compiled Parnassus, an anthology of important American poetry, he did not include a single poem of hers. Emma was bitterly disappointed and actually wrote him a letter accusing him of treating her "with absolute contempt." She claimed that "the opinions you have expressed to me in private" were completely contrary to "this public neglect" and "leaves me in utter bewilderment as to your real verdict."
Despite this angry letter, their relationship continued. In 1876, two years after the publication of her first novel, Alide, Emerson invited her to spend a week at his home in Concord, Massachusetts. This was a milestone for Lazarus for several reasons. It marked the resumption of a friendship with a man whom she—and indeed the whole nation—respected and admired. It was also a sign of real acceptance into the literary world, and a chance to meet other well-known figures in Emerson's famous circle. And finally, at age 27, this was the first trip Lazarus took alone, without any member of her family to accompany her.
Lazarus' visit to Concord was not the opportunity she had hoped. At 73, Emerson was tired and set in his ways. Although Emma did have a few brief talks with him, the more important outcome of that week was her developing friendship with Lidian Emerson , Emerson's wife, and Ellen "Nelly" Emerson , his daughter, who was Emma's contemporary. Emerson had been a Protestant preacher, and Ellen a Sunday School teacher who, like Emma, had lived a fairly sheltered life. Ellen later wrote that her encounter with Emma Lazarus was "more interesting than I could have imagined." It was apparently her first (and possibly her only) meeting with what she called "a real unconverted Jew." Emma and Ellen continued their friendship over many years, although Emma made only one other visit to the Emerson home.
After her trip to Concord, Lazarus resumed her literary activities and her quiet life: social engagements with family and friends, summers at Newport, reading, translations, discussions on books and art. She became a frequent contributor to The New York Times, and to Century and Critic, well-known magazines of the day, as well as the Jewish Messenger and the American Hebrew, popular Jewish publications.
It was in 1882 that Emma Lazarus first became mobilized to the cause of the Russian Jews. Before that time, she had dabbled in Jewish history and written a few poems on Jewish themes. Emma had been encouraged along these lines by a family friend, Rabbi Gustav Gottheil, spiritual leader of Temple Emanu-el in Manhattan. The writings of George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans ), and especially Eliot's novel Daniel Deronda, had also had a positive influence on her attitude toward her own people. However, Lazarus only wholeheartedly espoused their cause when it was taken up by her non-Jewish associates.
The pogroms (anti-Jewish riots) in Russia following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 had generated much comment from New York's humanitarian community, both Jewish and Christian. Lazarus was genuinely touched by the plight of her co-religionists who, by 1882, were pouring into New York harbor and filling the run-down and overcrowded neighborhoods near the port in lower Manhattan. She was equally affected by the bigotry against Jews which emanated from many quarters, including her own upper-class Jewish circle. Christians feared that an influx of Jewish immigrants, considered "base" and undesirable, would have a negative influence on American society. Upper-class Jews, already well established in the United States, echoed those feelings, but had an additional—and realistic—concern. These impoverished and uneducated Jews, whom Lazarus would later describe in a poem as having crawled forth "from the loathsome recesses of the Jewry," posed a very personal threat to American "Hebrews" as they preferred to call themselves. Earlier Jewish immigrants, from Spain, England and Germany, had carefully cultivated an image of gentility and refinement. Now they were being lumped together with this new group of poor, dirty, and uneducated Jews. It was this concern which must have fueled Emma's indignation, at least partially, when she was shown an anti-Semitic article in the Century.
The article blamed the Jews and their own unacceptable activities for the Russian attacks on them, and accused all Jews of unethical behavior and crimes against society. Lazarus' response to this article was a point-by-point refutation and an accurate description of Eastern European Jewish life and its problems. However, she also made it clear that Russian Jewry needed to reform itself from within by means of education, both technical and religious. Her ideas were reflected in a series of 15 essays called An Epistle to the Hebrews, published in 1882 in the American Hebrew.
From that point on, for the next two years, Lazarus devoted herself to the cause of Russian-Jewish immigrants. Her attack on this problem was two-pronged. She founded the short-lived and little-known Society for the Improvement and Colonization of East European Jews, thus becoming one of the earliest American advocates of modern Zionism and the American spokesperson for the resettlement of Jews in Palestine. In addition, she began visiting the new immigrants, especially those who were being held in quarantine at Ward's Island, and tried to help them. Initially, her help consisted of small amounts of money, food, and clothing. Later, her belief in the need for occupational reeducation led to her establishment of the Hebrew Technical Institute.
The consensus of her biographers was that although Lazarus was sympathetic to the hardships of these unfortunate Jews, she did not identify with them. As a result, she never "connected" in any real sense but always felt—and was considered to be—an outsider. Nevertheless, she attended rallies to raise money for Russian Jews and wrote poems about the brotherhood of the Jewish people. In her poem "The Prophet," she challenged the more comfortable American Jews to acknowledge their kinship with the "caftaned wretch" who was also a part of their people. It is easy, Lazarus suggested, to feel close to men like Moses ben Maimon, Judah HaLevi, Moses Mendelssohn, great Jewish philosophers and writers, and others of their caliber and accomplishment. But those who have "faith in the fortune of Israel" must dare to unite with all Jews. In "The Banner of the Jew" she called "Wake, Israel, wake!" to the needs of "the urgent hour."
As Emma described herself in a letter to a friend: "I have plunged … recklessly and impulsively" into the Jewish Question. This quiet and private woman even composed several speeches, although she was never unladylike enough to read them herself before an audience. Women public speakers were not yet acceptable in elite society despite the women's suffrage movement, and Emma submitted her written remarks to be read by male participants at the rallies.
This openly pro-Jewish stand was a courageous one in the upper-class world of the 1880s; in many respects even more courageous because Emma was a Jew herself. But the issue was very much alive during those months, being discussed in every newspaper and journal, and Emma was fortified in her beliefs by all her Christian friends. However she came to her commitment, there seems to be no doubt that through this issue Lazarus found a new meaning and pride in her Jewish identity and fully understood that the fate of Russian Jews was inextricably inter-twined with her own. She published a new collection of poetry, Songs of a Semite, and wrote: "I have no thought, no passion, no desire save for my own people."
Just one year after she had proclaimed her devotion to the Jewish people, Emma embarked on her first trip to England and France, accompanied by her younger sister Annie Lazarus . She had many letters of introduction to European Jewish leaders and philanthropists, as well as to famous non-Jews such as writer Robert Browning and social reformer William Morris. With praise for Songs of a Semite still recent, she found that people were anxious to meet her and hear her opinions.
After her return from this successful and exciting trip, Lazarus was at the peak of her career. It was at this time that she was approached by the Bartholdi Pedestal Fund for the Statue of Liberty and asked to write a poem. The Statue of Liberty was a gift from France, sculpted by the artist Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi. Due to be delivered shortly, there was as yet no place for the enormous statue. It was with some sense of urgency, therefore, that a fund-raising auction was organized and all the noted writers of the day were asked to contribute to the cause.
At first Lazarus was reluctant, claiming that art needs inspiration and cannot be commissioned. However, a member of the fund-raising committee appealed to her emotions, asking her to consider what the statue might mean to the Russian-Jewish refugees who saw it for the first time. Emma agreed, and just one month before the scheduled auction, wrote the sonnet that would become her most famous work: "The Giant Colossus."
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp! Cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door."
Along with poems by Longfellow, Whitman, Bret Harte, and Mark Twain, Emma Lazarus' poem was sold at auction in December 1883. It was the only poem among the illustrious collection that was read out loud at the event. Then it was promptly forgotten. When the statue was finally brought over to New York in 1886, Lazarus was in Europe and had moved on to other concerns. First there was Emma's own failing health, but that was overshadowed by the death of her father, Moses Lazarus. He had passed away in March 1885 after a long illness.
Exhausted and depressed, Emma embarked on another trip to Europe with Annie, this one much longer than the first. While in England, she began a new novel, but her mood and poor health forced her to give up the project. Instead, she traveled through Holland, then on to Paris and Rome where she enjoyed viewing all the great art about which she had only read until then. When she returned to England, she fell ill once again and was chronically exhausted. She pushed herself to visit more galleries and continue her planned activities despite a growing weakness, but finally could no longer sustain the effort. At Annie's insistence, in July of 1887, Emma agreed to return home and was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, a form of cancer. She had just turned 38.
Lazarus continued writing poems, letters, and translations even after she was completely bedridden. Among her last published works was a series of poems about "Jewish reality and the Jewish dream" published in March 1887 under the title By the Waters of Babylon.
Emma Lazarus died in her home in New York City on November 19, 1887. In addition to her large family, many of the noted literati of New York came to her funeral and praised both her and her work. However, her poetry slowly slipped into oblivion. Her sister Annie refused to release much of Emma's later poems for republication because she considered it "sectarian propaganda" and felt it did not reflect her sister's true views. Annie had subsequently married a Christian and converted to Catholicism, and many people felt that she was embarrassed by her sister's works on Jewish themes.
It was not until 1901, 14 years after Lazarus' death, that a friend and admirer, Georgina Schuyler , rediscovered a copy of "The New Colossus" and began a campaign to have it placed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, now permanently set on Bedloe's Island (presentday Liberty Island), outside New York harbor. It took Schuyler two years to overcome all the red tape involved in such a project, but on May 6, 1903, the 14 lines of Lazarus' sonnet, inscribed on a bronze plaque, were attached to the base of the statue. Schuyler wrote to her friends: "dear Emma's poem" is in place. Since that time, "The New Colossus" has been memorized by millions of schoolchildren, set to music, and been accepted as an integral part of America's culture and literature. It is a singular accomplishment for the modest poet who once wrote:
Late Born and woman-souled I dare not hope
The freshness of the elder lays, the might
Of manly, modern passion shall alight
Upon my Muse's lips …
"Emma Lazarus," in Encyclopedia Judaica. 1972 ed.
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Lefer, Diane. Emma Lazarus. NY: Chelsea House, 1988.
Young, Bette Roth. Emma Lazarus in Her World: Life and Letters. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1995.
Henry, Sondra, and Emily Taitz. Written Out of History: Jewish Foremothers. NY: Biblio Press, 1991.
Jacobs, H.E. The World of Emma Lazarus. NY: Schocken Books, 1949.
Schappes, Morris U., ed. Emma Lazarus: Selections from Her Poetry and Prose. IWO Jewish American Section, 1944 (reprinted NY: Emma Lazarus Federation of Jewish Women's Clubs, 1978).
Schappes, Morris U., ed. The Letters of Emma Lazarus, 1868–1885. NY: New York Public Library, 1949.
Emily Taitz , adjunct professor of Women's Studies, Adelphi University, Garden City, New York, and co-author of Remarkable Jewish Women: Rebels, Rabbis and Other Women from Biblical Times to the Present (Jewish Publication Society, 1996)