The Huddled Masses
|Digital History ID 3288|
On a tablet on the pedestal of the statue of liberty is inscribed a poem. Entitled "The New Colossus," it contains the famous words, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."
These words were not originally attached to the statue. The poem, which was written in 1883 to help raise money for the statue's pedestal, was forgotten until it was rediscovered in a Manhattan used-book store. The text was only placed on the pedestal in 1903, and it transformed the statue's meaning.
Its author, Emma Lazarus, was an American Jew, born in New York City in 1849. She had a privileged upbringing, and wrote a volume of poetry that was privately printed by her father.
In 1881, a wave of anti-Semitism swept across Russia. Soldiers destroyed Jewish districts, burned homes and synagogues. Thousands of Jews set sail for America. Lazarus was shocked by what she saw and devoted herself to helping the refugees.
The final sum needed to complete the pedestal came from an auction of literary works by such authors as Mark Twain and Walt Whitman. Emma Lazarus was asked to contribute a poem. She was reminded of the Colossus of Rhodes, a huge bronze statue of the sun god Helios, one of the wonders of the ancient world. She called her poem "The New Colossus," and it was sold for $1,500. At the time, she was dying of cancer. She was just 38 years old when she died in 1887.