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The Convert

Emma Lazarus

by Esther Schor
Nextbook/Schocken, 348 pp., $21.95

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.

1.

Emma Lazarus was born in 1849 into a large, secular, and very rich family. They lived in a brownstone on Fourteenth Street near Union Square and spent summers in Newport, where the family had ancestral ties, making annual visits to Saratoga and other fashionable resorts for the “upper ten thousand” of the richest families in New York. Little beyond luxury is known of Emma Lazarus’s life until the age of fourteen, when she began, at the height of the Civil War, to write poetry. Her father, Moses Lazarus, made his fortune in refining sugar; his dependence on raw materials from the South may have influenced his attitude toward the war. When the exclusive Republican Union Club refrained from expelling Judah P. Benjamin, secretary of state for the Confederacy and a Jewish sugar planter from Louisiana, Moses Lazarus did not join members who left the club in protest to found the Union League Club. Schor notes that Lazarus maintained a business partnership into the 1880s with another plantation owner from Louisiana named Bradish Johnston who was known for abusive treatment of his slaves before the war. While there is no evidence that Moses Lazarus was a “copperhead,” an active supporter of the Confederacy, there is no indication that he cared greatly which side won the war.

Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that when Moses Lazarus’s fourth daughter, Emma, began writing poems at a precocious rate of two or three a day, she had little to say about the national cataclysm. Her poetry of the early 1860s, as Schor notes, was “impervious to the war” until Lee’s surrender, when she wrote a poem that might be mistaken for one of Emily Dickinson’s abstract and oblique responses to the war:

More hearts will break than glad-

den when

The bitter struggle’s past;

The giant form of Victory must

A giant’s shadow cast.

Lazarus was more drawn to the drama of John Wilkes Booth’s flight from Ford’s Theatre than to Lincoln’s death. She wrote a narrative ballad, reminiscent of Whittier, in which she treated Booth as though he were a hunted slave (“I’ve wandered all night in this deadly air,/Till, sick’ning, I drop with pain and despair”). Two weeks later, she wrote a poem in the voice of Booth’s grieving mother. An accomplished poem on the theme of national reconciliation called “Heroes” begins in “rich Virginian woods,” where “the scarlet creeper reddens over graves.”

Proud of his precocious daughter, Moses Lazarus published her book Poems and Translations, Written Between the Ages of Fourteen and Sixteen in 1866; dedicated “To My Father,” it was reissued by a commercial press the following year. On the strength of this volume, the young poet was introduced to Emerson as a potential guide. The meeting took place at the Madison Avenue home of the lawyer-aesthete Samuel Gray Ward, the former editor of the Dial, close friend of Margaret Fuller, and brother of Julia Ward Howe. Emma Lazarus was eighteen, Emerson sixty-five. Based on a photograph of the time, Schor describes Lazarus’s “large features” as “adrift between handsome and homely,” but she seems quite beautiful to me and probably seemed so to Emerson as well.

Emerson and “Miss Emma” (as he called her) adopted the coy Abelard-and-Heloise banter with which Emily Dickinson engaged her own literary adviser, Thomas Wentworth Higginson. “I would like to be appointed your professor,” Emerson wrote her, “you being required to attend the whole term.” She in turn begged him to “guide & correct” her. When the corrections came they were mild enough at first; “I observe that my poet gains in skill as the poems multiply,” Emerson wrote, with light irony on the verb “multiply.” He praised “Heroes,” suggesting only that she cut some archaisms and rephrase a few lines, but he questioned her prolific output. “You permit feeble lines & feeble words,” he wrote of one poem; of another, on Thoreau, he commented wryly, “I do not think it cost you any day-dawn or midnight oil.” Their correspondence, Schor notes,

is astonishing and painful, from its opening notes of audacity (hers) and rapturous enthusiasm (his) to the progressive, mutual irritation that develops as Emerson’s misgivings become too obvious—and too exasperating—to mask.

Schor suspects that Emerson harbored “a tacit unease” with Emma Lazarus’s “Jewish ethnicity.” She needs to advance more evidence for the claim. The subject never came up in Emerson’s correspondence with Lazarus, and the pattern of their relationship—from initial intimacy to “mutual irritation”—is congruent with Emerson’s relations with other passionate literary women, most conspicuously Margaret Fuller. When he failed to include any of Lazarus’s poems in an anthology called Parnassus, she wrote a blistering, bridge-burning letter accusing him of hypocrisy. She quoted his encouraging words to her about specific poems, and declared: “I frankly confess I never could have imagined that they were not sufficiently emphatic for your favorite poems.” She closed her brief as a lawyer might, demanding “a reply at your earliest convenience.” I doubt that Emerson regarded this letter, as Schor suggests, as “an epitome of her shameless self-assertion.” It seems more likely that Emerson felt troubled and sorry—sorry that he had, as Lazarus feared, overpraised her youthful efforts and graded her more for progress than achievement.

2.

During the summer of 1872, while vacationing in Newport, Lazarus found a substitute for Emerson. Astonishingly, it was the same man that Emily Dickinson had chosen for herself a decade earlier. Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, recovering in Newport from a wound received during the Civil War when he commanded a black regiment in South Carolina and Florida, was something of a specialist in encouraging young women writers. Helen Hunt Jackson, Rose Terry Cooke, and Harriet Prescott Spofford had all served informal apprenticeships under Higginson’s benevolent regime; his relations with Dickinson had been less successful, as he tried in vain to “correct” what he perceived to be her “spasmodic” excesses.

Higginson was a snob and Lazarus’s social status appealed to him. “She is a Jewess,” he wrote to his sisters;

they are very rich and in fashionable society in New York, and she has never seen an author till lately, though she has corresponded with Emerson. It is curious to see how mentally famished a person may be in the very best society.

Schor discerns a “parallel pathos” in Higginson’s relations with Lazarus and Dickinson, noting “the urgency with which each woman poet approached an older, male mentor to confirm her claim to poethood.”

Higginson introduced Lazarus to his own circle of artists and scientists in Newport: the painter John La Farge and the architect Richard Morris Hunt (who later designed the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty); the astronomer Maria Mitchell; the actress Charlotte Cushman and her companion, the sculptress Emma Stebbins. Higginson generously shopped around Lazarus’s poems, something he never did for Dickinson until after her death, but he gave her a more important gift when he introduced her to Richard Watson Gilder, an editor at Scribner‘s magazine.1 Gilder and his wife, the painter Helena deKay, became Lazarus’s closest friends and, as Schor notes, “the focus of her social and intellectual life.” Lazarus’s self-revealing letters to deKay, which first came to light in 1980, are Schor’s major source for the last ten years of Lazarus’s life. Schor suspects, plausibly enough, that Lazarus’s undated and unpublished sonnet “Assurance,” which also first became known in 1980, reveals her feelings about deKay, a beautiful and talented woman with whom Winslow Homer, among others, had fallen in love before her. It begins:

Last night I slept, & when I woke her kiss

Still floated on my lips. For we had strayed

Together in my dream, through some dim glade,

Where the shy moonbeams scarce dared light our bliss.

Whatever the precise nature of Emma Lazarus’s feelings about Helena, it was with her brother Charles, an influential art critic and minor poet, that Lazarus formed a more conventional companionship, and apparently entertained hopes of marriage. He was an anti-Semite and a cad who seemed amused when Emma stumbled upon an unsavory relationship (the precise nature of which Schor doesn’t reveal) that he maintained in secret. Charles deKay reviewed Lazarus’s poems after her death, using the occasion to attack Jews for being “too much engrossed in mercantile and professional work to give time to literature.” Of deKay’s anti-Semitism there can be no doubt, but Schor is on shakier ground when she discerns a kindred undercurrent of prejudice in Lazarus’s brief friendship with the artist Maria Oakey, a close friend and studio-mate of Helena deKay.

  1. 1

    Gilder’s editor in chief at Scribner‘s was Josiah Gilbert Holland, one of Emily Dickinson’s closest friends. We can wonder whether Dickinson’s name was ever mentioned in conversations Lazarus had with Higginson or Gilder.

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