For most Americans, the name Emma Lazarus is likely to recall at best a brief injunction associated with the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi’s statue Liberty Enlightening the World was a gift from the people of France, meant to serve as a monument to a hundred years of friendship between the two nations conceived in Liberté. If the statue was free, the considerable costs associated with its installation were not. Congress agreed to pay for erecting and maintaining it, but balked at paying for the pedestal. Various schemes were launched to raise funds, amid widespread ridicule. Montague Marks, an art critic who later married Lazarus’s younger sister Agnes, compared the torch to “an immense double tooth which has just been extracted from some unfortunate mastodon.” Friends of the architect Richard Morris Hunt, who had designed the pedestal for the statue for Bedloe’s Island (renamed Liberty Island in 1956), decided in May 1883 to organize a benefit exhibition. Emma Lazarus, a close friend of several of the artists involved, was asked by the writer Constance Cary Harrison to write a poem for the catalog.
Lazarus was reluctant at first to write anything “to order.” Besides, she was not particularly fond of France or French society. “Take away the Louvre & the pictures & the statues,” she wrote of Paris, “& I should never wish to see it again.” She had just returned from her first trip abroad, where she had sought to raise funds for a completely different cause: the plight of Russian Jews recently arrived in New York City. It was only when she saw a way to link her concern for Russian refugees with the colossal statue destined for New York Harbor that she managed to fulfill the commission. Borrowing some of the rhymes and key words from Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” she wrote a sonnet with the title “The New Colossus.” The poem dramatically recast the meaning of Bartholdi’s statue, which Lazarus viewed not as a symbol of amitié between nations but as an invitation to refugees from the Old World to find sanctuary in the New:
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….
There is an irony here, and the scholar and poet Esther Schor, in her lively, short, and deftly argued book, is quick to note it. For Emma Lazarus could hardly be considered an immigrant herself. She was at least a fourth-generation American, with as much claim to native descent as any Mayflower descendant. Her refugee status, if one could call it that, dated from 1492, when the Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal. Some of these made their way to South America and then, in 1654, to New Amsterdam; their descendants were the “elite Sephardim” of the city that became New York.
Emma Lazarus was …