• Email
  • Print

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.

According to Schor, Lazarus “found Maria captivating, and when Maria turned on her for courting commercial success, she reeled.” Schor doesn’t quote Oakey’s qualms directly, noting only that her “charge of writing poetry for ‘vulgar’ commerce gave off a whiff of anti-Semitism.” Again, as with Emerson’s “tacit unease,” Schor needs to offer more evidence. Maria Oakey was a tough and fiercely independent woman artist who had studied in France and at Cooper Union. It seems entirely possible that Oakey really did sense something meretricious in Lazarus’s well-documented craving for approval and publication. Oakey herself struggled with the lure of commercial success. She later recalled how Oscar Wilde, during his tour of the United States in 1882, had lavishly praised her design for a theater curtain. “Why don’t you go into decoration and wipe them all out?” Wilde asked Oakey. She responded, “Because I must paint pictures or die.”2 It is unfortunate that Lazarus and Oakey, who became engaged to the painter Thomas Dewing soon after their acquaintance began, had so little time together. Among other things, they might have discussed the perils of seeking artistic advice, for Oakey had recently broken off an affair with her own mentor, John La Farge, who retaliated by blackballing her candidacy for the Society of American Artists.3

Lazarus’s intimacy with the Gilder circle invites a wider analysis than Schor is able to offer in the confines of a brisk biographical account. The Gilders and Charles deKay were at the center of the Aesthetic Movement in America, a vague program elevating “beauty” over the claims of utility and moralizing promoted by Wilde and others. The aims of the American aesthetes seemed at times contradictory; they favored both a more international sophistication in the arts as well as a distinctively American artistic expression. It is interesting to learn from Schor’s book that in June 1879, Charles deKay invited Lazarus to visit the Greenwich Village studio of the maverick painter Albert Pinkham Ryder. DeKay wrote the first major article on Ryder’s work, seeking to portray him as a sort of American Impressionist. Writing of Ryder’s Spring, the painting he specifically wished Lazarus to see, he conceded that Ryder might seem “deficient in knowledge of the figure,” but that “he is an impressionist in so far as he strives for the ‘feeling’ of a figure.”4

The occasion suggests a possible answer to a riddle concerning Ryder’s work. Ryder painted several pictures inspired by poems of the German Romantic poet Heinrich Heine. It has been suggested that he “may have been introduced to the work of Heine through [Charles] deKay, who translated Heine’s family letters.”5 Emma Lazarus, however, was one of the best-known translators of Heine of her time. Heine was among the poets she translated as a child, and in 1881 she published Poems and Ballads of Heinrich Heine, with an excellent literary essay, her first, as introduction. Schor observes that “she turned to the very poems in which Heine, a cultured, assimilated Jew who had accepted a baptism he later recanted, had struggled painfully to render his Jewish predicament.”

3.

Emma Lazarus’s own “Jewish predicament” is at the heart of her poetic achievement. As early as 1867, at the age of eighteen, she had written an impressive poem titled “In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport,” which all readers recognized as a response to Longfellow’s dignified and respectful poem about the Jewish cemetery there. “Closed are the portals of their Synagogue,” Longfellow had written, ending his poem with a lament that “the dead nations [shall] never rise again.” In a tribute to Longfellow after his death in 1882, Lazarus wrote sharply that “Jewish readers will not be so willing to accept the concluding stanzas of the poem.”6

Her own poem, however, is less a corrective to Longfellow than a mild extension of his theme. It is true that her synagogue is open, but only to “mournful echoes through the empty hall.” Longfellow evoked “the narrow streets and lanes obscure” of the “Ghetto and Judenstrass” of European cities; Lazarus, aiming for a longer historical view, adopts an exotic and hackneyed imagery of “tropic bloom” and “luxury’s barbaric pomp.” Schor tries hard to see this as an improvement: “Whereas Longfellow deemed the Jews exceptional, Emma Lazarus allows them a normal existence in an oriental homeland.” But John Hollander is more accurate when he writes, in his discerning selection of Lazarus’s poetry, that her poem “might easily have been written by a Gentile poet with a bit of knowledge of post-bibilical Jewish history.”

In retrospect, however, “In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport” can be taken, as Schor remarks, as “the first sign of Emma Lazarus’s willingness—her eagerness—to cross the gulf between her own assimilated, modern American life and the ancient tradition of Judaism and its people.” This imaginative “crossing” was complete by the late 1870s, and with it came a corresponding growth in lyric power, as Lazarus became perhaps the most accomplished American writer of sonnets between the generations of Longfellow and Robert Frost. In “1492,” that “two-faced year” of both Columbus and the expulsion of the Jews, Lazarus wrote of the gap between the promise of modern civilization and the suffering of Jews in exile:

Hounded from sea to sea, from state to state,

The West refused them, and the East abhorred.

No anchorage the known world could afford.

A bittersweet melancholy suffuses her understated sonnet “Long Island Sound,” where a seemingly random list of observations carries an unexpected emotional freight, and perhaps a hint of alienation:

The quiet fishing-smacks, the Eastern cove,

The semi-circle of its dark, green grove.

The luminous grasses, and the merry sun

In the grave sky; the sparkle far and wide,

Laughter of unseen children, cheerful chirp

Of crickets, and low lisp of rippling tide,

Light summer clouds fantastical as sleep

Changing unnoted while I gazed thereon.

And these fair sounds and sights I made my own.

Sonnets were not the only form in which Lazarus excelled. While not “the first instance of a prose poem written in English,” as Schor claims, Lazarus’s remarkable “Little Poems in Prose,” the title borrowed from Baudelaire, ranged with visionary power across centuries of Jewish experience.7 In the pivotal fourth section of the poem, titled “The Test,” she contrasted an idealized figure of the poet, “who plucked from his bosom the quivering heart and fashioned it into a lyre,” with a caricature of the modern urban Jew:

And suddenly I heard a burst of mocking laughter, and turning, I beheld the shuffling gait, the ignominious features, the sordid mask of the son of the Ghetto.

4.

More than a third of Schor’s book is devoted to the years from 1880 to 1883, when Lazarus, fully mature as a poet, also emerged as the leading American advocate for three causes: the repatriation of Jews in a homeland of their own; vocational training for Jewish immigrants; and suppression of anti-Semitism. Schor convincingly links Lazarus’s conversion (not to Jewish faith but to Jewish activism) to three events: the Seligman scandal in Saratoga during the summer of 1877; the pogroms that followed the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, when Jews were widely blamed for the crime; and the subsequent arrival in New York of Russian Jewish refugees by the thousands.

The Seligman incident, while not quite the American equivalent of the Dreyfus Case, nonetheless galvanized public opinion concerning anti-Semitism. Joseph Seligman, a rich banker from New York, had stayed at the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga for ten years when, in June of 1877, he was told by the manager that “no Israelites shall be permitted in future to stop at this hotel.” When Seligman called for a boycott of the Grand Union and other hotels under Henry Hilton’s ownership, Hilton drew a distinction between newly arrived German-Jewish immigrants like Seligman and Sephardic “families like the Hendricks and Nathans” who “are welcome everywhere.” Since Emma Lazarus was related to both the Hendricks and Nathans, and her family continued to visit Saratoga until at least 1880, it would have been easy for her to ignore the Seligman scandal. Instead, as Schor notes, Lazarus “chose the moment when many American Jews minimized, sidestepped, or finessed their identity to declare herself as a Jew.” In her ironically titled “Epistle to the Hebrews,” which she began as a weekly column for the American Hebrew in November 1882, she arrived at her often quoted formulation “Until we are all free, none of us is free.”

During the early spring of 1882, Lazarus visited Ward’s Island at the northern end of the East River, where vacant buildings served as a makeshift shelter for overflow refugees from the shelters at Castle Garden in Manhattan. She was both appalled at the conditions and inspired by the people she saw there. In an article in The New York Times called “Among the Russian Jews,” aimed at a primarily Gentile audience, she noted that “the coarser features of the Jewish type are singularly lacking among these refugees.” They were, for the most part, well educated, “emancipated in religious matters,” and free of “national as well as religious prejudice.” At the same time, she realized that the United States could not serve as the refuge for the entire Jewish Diaspora. In 1883, she founded the Society for the Colonisation and Improvement of Eastern European Jews. As “the first American to make the case for a homeland in Palestine,” eight years before the word “Zionism” was coined, Lazarus was following the lead of several British philo-Semites, including George Eliot, whose novel Daniel Deronda had a decisive influence on her evolving views.

A recurrent word in Lazarus’s writing on behalf of Jewish refugees during the early 1880s is “practical.” She advocated artisanal and industrial training for immigrants, arguing that Jews at all levels of society “should be brought up to consider their education incomplete until it has supplied them with the art of using their hands and earning their livelihood in at least a single branch of productive industry.” She was directly involved in the founding of the Hebrew Technical Institute in November 1883. Schor is probably right to relate these activities to Lazarus’s interest in William Morris’s community of craftsmen, which she visited in England in 1884. But a model closer to home, unmentioned by Schor, is Booker T. Washington’s dedication to industrial training as a means of “uplift” for freed slaves. The Hampton Institute, which Washington attended, and the Tuskegee Institute that he founded were better models for the Hebrew Technical Institute than Morris’s neomedieval community.

During the late spring and summer of 1883, Lazarus made her first trip to Europe, partly to raise funds for her various causes but also to meet Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, Robert Browning, Edmund Gosse, and other artists and writers she admired. It was on her return from this trip that she wrote her sonnet “The New Colossus.” The poem appeared in the catalog of the exhibition organized to raise money for the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal and it was widely mentioned in the press; but it was not read at the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in the fall of 1886. Instead, the organizers reasserted the theme of French-American friendship, and, as Schor notes, “the only immigrants invoked were those ‘illustrious descendants of the French nobility who crossed the Atlantic 100 years ago’ in aid of the American Revolution.” It was only in 1903, through the combined efforts of Lazarus’s family and friends, including the Gilders, that a plaque with Lazarus’s nearly forgotten poem was attached to the pedestal. Just two weeks earlier, in a grim coincidence noted by Schor, fifty Jews were killed and hundreds injured in a pogrom in the Russian city of Kishinev. During World War II, thanks to the efforts of the Slovenian immigrant Louis Adamic, the poem was invoked again, for exiles from Hitler’s Europe, to interpret the meaning of the statue as Lazarus’s “Mother of Exiles.” This time the interpretation prevailed.

All this was too late for Emma Lazarus, however. During the fall of 1884 she observed the first symptoms of the cancer that would kill her three years later at the age of thirty-eight. Like a doomed heiress from a novel of Henry James, she sailed again for Europe in April 1885, determined to travel to Italy. She met James himself in Paris—“He looked well—but no longer young”—when he was caring for his own gravely ill sister, Alice. Lazarus reached Rome in January and was dazzled by her first glimpse of the Colosseum. “I do not know myself at all,” she wrote Helena deKay.

To me, it is so overpoweringly beautiful, strange & significant, that from the very first instant I was crushed by it, & have continued to feel the spell of it all, more & more profoundly with each hour of my stay.

But like Daisy Miller in the moonlit Colosseum, she knew that she was doomed. On her return to New York she prepared a final manuscript version of her selected poems, giving “The New Colossus” pride of place, and died on November 19, 1887. She had survived Colonel Higginson’s other precocious protégé, Emily Dickinson, by a little over a year, and would have to wait considerably longer for anything like the public recognition that her remarkable achievements deserved.

  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.

  2. 2

    See Erica E. Hirshler, A Studio of Her Own: Women Artists in Boston, 1870–1940 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2001), p. 73.

  3. 3

    See Hirshler, A Studio of Her Own, pp. 37 and 162.

  4. 4

    Charles deKay, quoted in Elizabeth Broun, Albert Pinkham Ryder (Smithsonian Institution Press/National Museum of American Art, 1989), p. 37. Ryder’s Spring (Toledo Museum of Art) is reproduced on p. 38. The Whitney Museum of American Art owns a mirror commissioned by Charles deKay for his mother, with panels painted by Ryder portraying Helena deKay Gilder and other members of the family. See Doreen Burke et al., In Pursuit of Beauty: Americans and the Aesthetic Movement (Rizzoli/Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986), pp. 310–311.

  5. 5

    Broun, Albert Pinkham Ryder, p. 249.

  6. 6

    Lazarus, “Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,” The American Hebrew,April 14, 1882, reprinted in Morris U. Schappes, Emma Lazarus: Selections from her Poetry and Prose (Emma Lazarus Federation of Jewish Women’s Clubs, 1967), p. 99.

  7. 7

    See Emerson’s manuscript poem “Woods, A Prose Sonnet” in David Lehman, Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present (Scribner, 2003). Lehman also includes the first section, “The Exodus (August 3, 1492),” of Lazarus’s “Little Poems in Prose.”

  • Email
  • Print