A New York exhibit sheds new light on the life of Emma Lazarus, whose sonnet on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty transformed the monument into a symbol of hope for millions of immigrants.
‘Emma Lazarus Poet of Exiles’ at The Museum of Jewish Heritage, which runs through December, marks the 125th anniversary of the dedication of the statue.
‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free …’ wrote Lazarus, whose passion had been stirred by the plight of Russian Jews fleeing pogroms in the 1880s, which inflamed anti-Semitism and xenophobia at home and abroad.
‘Many people know Emma Lazarus for those lines, but we wanted visitors to understand all the influences that fed her thinking so that she could craft that message about exile, home and the promise of America as no one else could,’ said Melissa Martens, curator and director of the exhibit.
Among the exhibit’s treasures is the manuscript notebook containing Lazarus’ famous sonnet, ‘The New Colossus,’ and other works she re-penned in 1886 when ill with cancer.
The original letter from Lazarus’s great-great uncle, Moses Mendes Seixas, to George Washington in which Seixas describes a government ‘which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance’ is also featured.
Washington echoed that vision in his reply which forms a foundation for religious freedom in America, and is rarely seen by the public in original form.
Letters to and from American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson also form part of the exhibit. Emerson was Lazarus’s friend, supporter and toughest critic.
The exhibit, which contains a terra cotta model for the Statue of Liberty by its sculptor Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi, asks visitors to reflect on the meaning of such symbols.
‘It provides a framework to look at the 19th century, but also foreshadows important questions Americans would ask themselves about immigration and freedom,’ Martens said.
Lazarus’s social circle was a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of American literary life after the Civil War. Abolitionist, author and Unitarian minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson was a mentor. Helena deKay Gilder, an artist and a founder of the Art Students League, and her husband, Scribner’s editor Richard Watson Gilder, were close friends.
‘Emma Lazarus was very bold, outgoing and vivacious,’ said Martens.
Music and art animated her, as did history and politics. She honed her social conscience and was impressed by the social reformer Henry George as well as William Morris, a major reformer of the arts, Martens said.
‘She saw capitalism as being problematic and alienating to those who did not have those resources,’ she added.
Lazarus did not consider herself religious, but in these distinctly non-Jewish social and literary circles she retained her feeling for both the history and future of the Jewish people.
‘Lazarus was an insider and outsider at the same time,’ said Martens. ‘She had wide access to artistic, social circles, but her Jewishness was often commented upon so she knew she was still different.’
By 1882, Lazarus was working with newly arrived Russian-Jewish immigrants in New York’s immigrant holding stations. She wrote about their hardships and became an early advocate for a Jewish homeland, entering Jewish nationalism to the list of the century’s great national movements in Greece, Italy, Hungary and Poland.
In 1883, the writer Constance Cary Harrison approached Emma Lazarus, asking her to write a poem to raise funds for the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty, which was a gift from France.
The sonnet, ‘The New Colossus,’ was the result.
Lazarus died in 1887 of Hodgkin’s disease at age 38.
‘The New Colossus,’ was installed inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty 16 years later, in 1903, where it remains today.
‘It’s a poem of protest as much as a message of welcome,’ Martens said. ‘It changes the voice of the statue and makes her truly American.’