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Emma Lazarus and Her Vision by Bette Roth Young

Image of immigrants arriving in New York with the Statue of liberty in the background

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbour that twin cities frame.

"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door."
Image copyrighted 2001 by The Mariners' Museum
Newport News, Virginia and used with permission.

 

For almost one hundred years, the Statue of Liberty has welcomed immigrants from around the world. But when she was installed on Bedloe's island in New York harbor, that had not been her purpose. The citizens of France gave the statue to the citizens of the United States in commemoration of both countries' commitment to "Liberty." Emma Lazarus, New York born and bred, had other ideas. Naming her "Mother of Exiles," Lazarus wrote her poem to that majestic lady in validation of the thousands of immigrants streaming through our "golden door." The Statue of Liberty would welcome the "wretched refuse," the rejects of European society, to a country which would transform them into the dynamic, creative, productive, inventive American citizens they would become. This was Emma's vision, a vision that would be fulfilled.

Emma Lazarus was rooted deeply in American soil. Her ancestors had come here as immigrants since before the American Revolution. They would establish and participate in the small but growing Jewish community. By the time Emma came along, members of her family were prosperous and well-regarded in Manhattan where they lived. Emma was raised in the lap of luxury but even as a child she exhibited a talent for poetry as well as a sensitivity and perceptiveness beyond her years. She was vitally interested in her family, her city, and her people.

In the early 1880's, Emma became aware of the harsh discrimination against Jews who lived in Eastern Europe, especially those under the rule of Russia's newest czar. Fortunately, many of these outcasts were able to make the long and arduous trek. walking across Europe to sail in steerage, in unimaginably harsh circumstances, for weeks across the unpredictable Atlantic Ocean, to the "golden medina, the United States where the streets were said to have been paved with gold. In reality, they found life on the Lower East Side of New York as inhospitable in its own way as had been the shtetls from which they fled. These "huddled masses" became a topic for discussion and concern for Manhattan's elite. Soon, Emma Lazarus participated in the conversation.

She was so taken with what she would see, read and hear that she began to volunteer in institutions set up for helping these new "greenhorns," teaching them to read and learn English.

She became their spokesperson, they became her crusade. Already known as a woman of immense intelligence, Emma published articles in the leading journals and newspapers, Jewish and general. She studied Hebrew and Yiddish and steeped herself in Jewish history and culture. When she was asked to write a sonnet to the statue, she refused at first. But when it was suggested that she write about her in the context of her beloved Jewish immigrants, she agreed to try. Three days later, she had finished "The New Colossus."

It was not at all certain that we would read her words. After the poem was written in 1883, it was largely forgotten until Emma's friend, Georgina Schuyler, rescued it from oblivion. She called upon Richard Watson Gilder, Emma's editor and friend, to help her immortalize "The New Colossus" by engraving it upon a bronze plaque to be placed in the pedestal of the Statue. It took two years of red tape, but in the end, because of the persistence of Schuyler and Gilder, the plaque found its place within the pedestal of the statue that Emma's sonnet had redefined. Her vision of this country as a refuge with the capacity for regeneration of the human spirit has endured, notwithstanding sporadic periods of harsh immigration restrictions. Emma, her statue, and her immigrants are indivisible. "The New Colossus" is one of the best known and most often quoted documents in our American experience.


More about Emma Lazarus:

Jewish Women's Archive
http://www.jwa.org/exhibits/lazarus/

Small part of the copy book where Emma Lazarus wrote the New Colossus
To see the original copy book page containing Emma Lazarus' poem, The New Colossus inscribed on the Statue of Liberty:
http://www.jwa.org/exhibits/lazarus/el9.htm

Copyright Digital History 2014