The name Emma Lazarus was probably unknown to most when, on October 28, 1886, throngs gathered to dedicate Liberty Enlightening the World, later to become known as The Statue of Liberty, France’s gift to the United States. As we now celebrate the 125th anniversary of its dedication, Lazarus is known as the poet whose words grace the statue’s pedestal. Her sonnet, “The New Colossus,” was written to raise money for the Statue’s Pedestal Fund (the U.S. was to provide the pedestal for the Statue), but it was not until 1903, sixteen years after her death, after the tireless lobbying of Lazarus’ friend, Georgina Schuyler, that her words were mounted on a bronze tablet inside the pedestal. And it was not until decades after her words were put on display that the sonnet became widely known and associated with the Statue.
Lazarus’ background was likely a contributing factor in her semi-obscurity. Although Lazarus was a fourth-generation American from a wealthy family who was mentored by Ralph Waldo Emerson, according to the Jewish Women’s Archive:
As a Jewish American woman, Emma Lazarus faced the challenge of belonging to two often conflicting worlds. As a woman she dealt with unequal treatment in both. The difficult experiences lent power and depth to her work. At the same time, her complicated identity has obscured her place in American culture.
The now famous lines, “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” were inspired by Lazarus’ frequent trips to Ward’s Island where many Jews who fled the pogroms in Eastern Europe were being held. She was saddened by the plight of the Russian Jews she met at Castle Garden and unsuccessfully attempted to raise funds to benefit the refugees. With her sonnet, she broadened her appeal to include all immigrants. In a recent New York Times article, Sam Roberts quotes Professor Esther Schor, author of a biography of Lazarus, as saying, “the statue was a special kind of mother—a ‘mother of exiles’—a mother whose mission is not to reproduce herself, but rather to adopt the abandoned, the orphaned, the persecuted.” Read the rest of this entry »