Article abstract: Lazarus began writing poems as a girl and published volumes of poetry, plays, translations, a novel, and many influential essays in Century magazine and in the American Jewish press. She is best remembered for her sonnet “The New Colossus,” which is engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty.
On July 22, 1849, Emma Lazarus was born into an American Jewish family that had lived in New York for generations. One of her ancestors was a Sephardic Jew from Portugal who had fled the Spanish Inquisition and emigrated to the West Indies. Emma’s father, Moses Lazarus, was a successful sugar merchant and one of New York’s wealthiest men. He was a founder of the Knickerbocker Club and belonged to the influential Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue. Emma’s mother, Esther Nathan Lazarus, belonged to a prominent New York family whose members were distinguished in the legal profession.
Emma, the fourth daughter born to the family, was named for one of the novelist Jane Austen’s heroines. A boy and two more girls followed. The family enjoyed summers in fashionable Newport, Rhode Island. Emma and her older sisters were educated at home by private tutors; Emma in particular was considered too frail for schooling outside the house. She had a gift for languages and learned French, Italian, and German. She also immersed herself in children’s stories and then in the volumes of her father’s library. She was particularly taken with Sir Walter Scott, the Scottish novelist and poet, and with Greek and Roman mythology.
When the Civil War broke out, Emma was only eleven, but she was aware of the uncles and male cousins, dressed in Union blue, who arrived at her home at all hours to say tearful goodbyes to her parents. She wrote poems on war and on nature themes, and translated French and German poets. Her father retired in 1865 at the age of fifty-two and devoted himself to his children. When he saw Emma’s notebooks, he was taken with her thirty original poems as well as with her translations of Heinrich Heine and Victor Hugo. He decided to have the manuscript printed for private circulation. Poems and Translations by Emma Lazarus. Written Between the Ages of Fourteen and Sixteen appeared in 1866. The book was received enthusiastically and, with the addition of ten new poems, was reprinted the following year for general circulation. To crown the events of her eighteenth year, Moses Lazarus introduced Emma to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was then in his sixties. Emerson, one of the most influential poets and writers of his time, asked the young poet to send a copy of her book to him in Concord, Massachusetts. He praised the book and offered constructive criticism, which led to a long and fruitful correspondence. He was to be an important influence on her work.
In the next few years, Emma Lazarus pursued nature, classical, and Jewish themes in her poetry. She wrote one of her best-known poems, “In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport,” drawing on the historical resonance of the oldest synagogue in the United States and patterning it after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport.” “Admetus,” a long, romantic poem with scenes from Greek mythology, was accepted by Lippincott’s, the leading literary magazine of the day, and became the title poem of her second collection. Emerson praised Admetus and Other Poems, and Lazarus dedicated it to him over his objections. Published in 1871, the book was well received in the United States and earned rave reviews in England, where one critic compared Lazarus favorably to Robert Browning, one of the most erudite living English poets.
Lazarus’ next project was a romantic novel titled Alide, based on a love incident in the life of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the great German writer whose work she had translated. When Alide was published in 1874, Lazarus sent a copy to Ivan Turgenev, a world-famous Russian novelist whom she revered. His response was reserved but positive; he praised her grasp of the German spirit and admired her depiction of character. Lazarus treasured his letter, and it may have offered her some comfort when Parnassus, a poetry anthology edited by her friend Emerson, appeared shortly afterward. It was an important anthology in which English and American poets were published together for the first time. When she found that she was omitted from Parnassus despite Emerson’s years of praise for her work, Lazarus was deeply wounded. She wrote him a proud letter questioning his sincerity, but he did not answer.
Lazarus’ mother died early in 1876, breaking up an unusually close-knit family circle and prompting new poems on the theme of mother love. The following summer, after a year and a half of silence, Emerson and his wife invited Lazarus to visit them in...
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