Emma Lazarus 1849-1887
(Also wrote under the pseudonym Ester Sarazal) American poet, essayist, novelist, playwright, and translator.
The following entry presents criticism on Lazarus from 1983 to 1996. For additional information on Lazarus's life and career, see NCLC, Volume 8.
Considered among the most talented of the late nineteenth-century American poets, Lazarus achieved prominence in the 1880s as literary champion of the Jewish people. Confronted with the spectacle of thousands of Jewish exiles seeking refuge in the United States from pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe, she became an ardent activist, exhorting American Jews to unite with the refugees under the banner of Judaism and proclaiming the nobility of the Judaic tradition. A number of her most well-known works in poetry and prose deal with Jewish issues, including her responses to the virulent anti-Semitism of the period. Lazarus is also acclaimed as a pioneer Zionist who ardently supported the establishment of a Jewish national homeland, though many of her works attest to her faith in the United States as a haven for expatriated Jews and other exiles. “The New Colossus,” her famous sonnet welcoming the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” to the shores of America, is inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor.
Born in 1849, Emma Lazarus was raised in a prosperous and socially prominent family and was educated privately at her family's home in New York City. An unusually precocious child, she published two volumes of original verse and translations, Poems and Translations Written Between the Ages of Fourteen and Sixteen (1866) and Admetus, and Other Poems (1871), by the time she was twenty-one. Lazarus's early verse attracted the attention of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who subsequently praised several of the manuscript poems that later appeared in Admetus. In the following decade, Lazarus devoted herself almost exclusively to literary pursuits, contributing poems to Lippincott's and other national magazines. Though her Jewish consciousness was largely quiescent prior to the onset of the Russian pogroms, the publication in April, 1882, of an article by Madame Z. Ragozin in the Century Magazine defending widespread violence against Russian Jews aroused her sympathies. Having witnessed the effects of these persecutions while visiting the refugee camp on Ward's Island, New York, Lazarus published a forceful rebuttal of Ragozin's anti-Semitic arguments entitled “Russian Christianity versus Modern Judaism” in the May issue of the Century. The appearance of her Songs of a Semite: The Dance to Death, and Other Poems (1882) that same year earned Lazarus critical and popular recognition as the literary champion of her people. Lazarus also became deeply involved in contemporary Jewish affairs during this period. In addition to contributing a series of weekly essays to American Hebrew magazine in 1882 and 1883 (later collected under the title An Epistle to the Hebrews), she worked in aid of Jewish refugees and became a leading force in the establishment of the Hebrew Technical Institute, a school providing vocational retraining for dispossessed immigrants. In 1883, she composed the verses of “The New Colossus” for the literary auction benefiting a pedestal fund for the Statue of Liberty but did not live to see the poem inscribed. While traveling in Europe she was stricken with a grave illness. She returned to the United States two years later, fatally ill with cancer. Lazarus died in New York City in 1887.
Lazarus's writings are generally divided into two categories: those works produced prior to 1881, which frequently feature classical elements or treat romantic themes, and her later writings in which Jewish themes predominate. Common subjects in her early verse include her impressions of the artist's role in society and her poetic celebration of natural beauty. Other works of this period include her only novel, Alide: An Episode of Goethe's Life (1874), based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's relationship with Friederike Brion, and her tragic drama of a doomed artist, The Spagnoletto (1876), set in Renaissance Italy. She also produced a number of skilled translations during this time, rendering texts by the medieval Spanish Hebrew authors Solomon Ibn Gabirol and Judah Halevi, as well as writings by Goethe, Victor Hugo, Petrarch, and others into English and composing a highly regarded volume of translations from the works of the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine. Jewish issues are generally subsumed in this period to other matters, although Lazarus did write shorter poems on Hebrew themes. “In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport” of Admetus, a memorial verse for Reverend J. J. Lyons, is also an objection to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport”—a piece that augured little hope for the future of the Jewish people. In her writing of the subsequent period contemporary Jewish issues take precedence. Lazarus's essays clearly set forth the major thematic concern of her poems at this time: the need for Jewish pride and unity. In An Epistle to the Hebrews she urges American Jews to organize and help alleviate the sufferings of less fortunate expatriated Jews; likewise she argues for the establishment of an independent national Jewish homeland in the 1883 essay “The Jewish Problem.” Though sometimes strident in her verse, Lazarus produced a number of poetic works with less fervent themes, as in “Gifts” and “The Choice” (both in The Poems of Emma Lazarus, 1889) in which she characterizes zeal for divine truth as the imperishable, if costly, legacy of the Jewish people. Among her final works, the historical drama “The Dance to Death” recounts the tragic persecution of the Jewish community of Nordhausen, Germany in the fourteenth century. “By the Waters of Babylon: Little Poems in Prose,” a magazine publication collected posthumously in The Poems of Emma Lazarus, opens with a depiction of the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, followed by a more hopeful description of the condition of modern Jewish exiles in America.
Lazarus's critical reputation reached its apogee in 1871, when Admetus, and Other Poems elicited predictions from contemporary critics of her future greatness. However, the subsequent failure of Ralph Waldo Emerson to include any of her work in his 1874 collection of poetry entitled Parnassus came as a considerable blow to Lazarus, who regarded him a friend and mentor. From this point onward Lazarus has been in a critical twilight, often honored as a valiant activist but rarely analyzed as a legitimate literary talent. After her death she was memorialized by a number of America's finest poets, but most critical estimations of her have focused on her position as a Jewish American and female poet, with considerations of her personal identity and religious consciousness dominating literary explication. Still, the pieces collected in The Poems of Emma Lazarus are generally thought to reflect the culmination of her work, while other critics view her blank-verse drama “The Dance to Death” as her greatest poetic achievement—although estimations continue to be mixed. By the close of the twentieth century only her public poem “The New Colossus” remained widely anthologized or studied. Nevertheless, Lazarus continues to be counted among the finest transcendental poets and translators of verse in nineteenth-century America.