Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2022
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 Concord. It was a great adventure for the twenty-seven-year-old poet. She was immediately taken with Mrs. Emerson and developed a friendship with Emerson’s daughter Ellen, who was ten years her senior. Among the people she met there was the poet and biographer William Ellery Channing, who took Lazarus to Henry David Thoreau’s cottage at Walden Pond and presented her with the pocket compass that his old friend Thoreau had carried on his walks.
Lazarus returned to her literary life in New York, interspersed with summers in elegant Newport. Her poems continued to appear, and her name became widely known as her activities branched out into critical essays, book reviews, and profiles of prominent artists. Lazarus now began to recognize the limitations of her knowledge of the world and started to question the importance of her work. At about that time, Gustave Gottheil, a New York rabbi, asked her to translate some medieval Jewish hymns from German. These were the first of many that she was to translate from German, Spanish, and Hebrew sources and that were to appear over the years in the Jewish Messenger. She next wrote a long, ambitious work titled The Dance to Death. This powerful verse-drama in five acts chronicles the martyrdom of the Jews of Nordhausen in 1349, when they were accused of causing the Black Plague and were sentenced to be burned to death. At the time, Lazarus neither showed it to anyone nor submitted it for publication. Her interest in her Jewish heritage found a new outlet in the life and work of the German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine. She translated many of his poems and wrote others based on Heine’s notes that were found after his early death in 1856. A book grew from these endeavors, Poems and Ballads of Heinrich Heine, which included Lazarus’ biographical study of the German poet.
The early years of the 1880’s were marked by historical events that were to have a profound effect on Lazarus’ work. A series of bloody riots against the Jewish population in Russia had caused hundreds of thousands of destitute Jews to flee to the United States. Lazarus visited the refugees at Ward’s Island in the East River, where they were temporarily housed. The first task was to resettle the refugees, and she immediately started to raise funds for that purpose from her wide circle of acquaintances. In April of 1882, Century magazine carried an article by a Russian historian that justified the pogroms by vilifying Jews. Incensed, Lazarus wrote an answering essay that appeared in the May issue. She had found her cause, and with it, a new voice.
She wrote many new poems on Jewish themes and sent them to Philip Cowen, editor of the American Hebrew. She also sent him The Dance to Death, which he published in installments. In September of 1882, the verse-drama was published together with new poems in Songs of a Semite. Lazarus continued to visit the refugees on Ward’s Island, occasions that stimulated new perspectives. In a burst of energy, Lazarus wrote “An Epistle to the Hebrews,” which grew into fifteen articles that appeared in the American Hebrew between November, 1882, and February, 1883. The work was an appeal to American Jews to reflect upon their history and try to retain their special identities. “An Epistle” provoked great controversy, particularly in its support for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.
Her reputation preceded her when Lazarus sailed to England in the spring of 1883 with her younger sister Annie. She was showered with invitations from the artistic elite of British society. She returned home in the autumn, and shortly after, she received an appeal from a fund-raising committee for the gigantic new Statue of Liberty to be erected on Bedlow Island in New York Harbor. The committee requested an original manuscript to sell at an auction along with manuscripts by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Walt Whitman, and Mark Twain. In reply, Lazarus wrote the sonnet “The New Colossus,” a poem that was to ensure her immortality in a world of changing tastes and fashions.
The following year Lazarus fell ill, but she persevered in her work, writing a long poem that was intended to sum up her beliefs about the Jews. Influenced by Walt Whitman, she chose a new form: a cycle of lyrics made up of long, sprawling lines, which became “By the Waters of Babylon.” Lazarus had apparently recovered from her illness when her father died in May of 1885. It was a numbing shock, and eight weeks later she departed for a tour of Europe with her sister Josephine. Lazarus spent two years abroad, although she was an invalid for much of that time. She finally returned to New York in 1887, where she died of cancer at the age of thirty-eight.
Emma Lazarus’ popular fame rests on her sonnet on the Statue of Liberty. Ironically, the author never assigned any particular importance to the poem. Only through the efforts of a friend, Georgiana Schuyler, was “The New Colossus” inscribed on a plaque on the base of the Statue of Liberty in 1903, sixteen years after the author’s death. During her lifetime, hers was a strong and eloquent voice advancing provocative ideas on the history and future of the Jews. At a time when anti-Semitism was widespread, she wrote convincingly of the proud Jewish spirit. An ardently patriotic American, she had no difficulty reconciling this patriotism with her ethnic loyalty. She was one of the first Americans to take up the cause of a Jewish homeland, an idea that was not welcomed by the American Jews of her time.
Quiet, almost withdrawn, Emma Lazarus became an influential writer and intellectual who was admired by major contemporary figures. It cannot be known what Emma Lazarus might have accomplished if she had lived, but in her thirty-eight years she became a widely known artist and important public advocate for causes whose time had not yet arrived.
Gordh, George. “Emma Lazarus: A Poet of Exile and Freedom.” The Christian Century 103 (November 19, 1986): 1033-1036. In a careful reading of Lazarus’ poetry, Gordh compared her early, romantic verse with the later work, which he finds imbued with a religious sensibility. “The New Colossus” is discussed at length.
Jacob, Heinrich E. The World of Emma Lazarus. New York: Schocken Books, 1949. Jacob uses a Freudian model to understand Lazarus, concluding that the major influence on her life was her father. This study is fanciful but interesting.
Lichtenstein, Diane. “Words and Worlds: Emma Lazarus’s Conflicting Citizenships.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 6, no. 2 (Fall, 1987): 247-263. Lichtenstein demonstrates that Lazarus used her writing to achieve a resolution between her American and Jewish identities in the last decade of her life. The article also raises the issue of the poet’s gender, another form of marginality that Lazarus forged into her unique identity.
Merriam, Eve. Emma Lazarus: Woman with a Torch. New York: Citadel Press, 1956. This biography studies Lazarus’ life as it was reflected in her work. Merriam traces the poetry from the early focus on history and myth to its later engagement with events of her own time.
Vogel, Dan. Emma Lazarus. Boston: Twayne, 1980. This work, one of a standardized series of monographs, offers the general reader a well-organized, concrete overview of the poet’s life and work.
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