Who Was Emma Lazarus?
Emma Lazarus was born into a wealthy New York family that was descended from Sephardic Jewish Americans. She displayed an early talent for poetry, and attracted the notice of Ralph Waldo Emerson with her first book. Her poem "The New Colossus" was chosen to be displayed on the base of the Statue of Liberty. It features the famous lines "Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."
Emma Lazarus was born on July 22, 1849 in New York City. She was the fourth of seven children born to Moses and Esther Nathan Lazarus. The family was descended from early Jewish settlers in America. Of Portuguese descent, the family was wealthy, earning its fortune in the sugar refining business. Lazarus received a classical education and the family moved in high society, which included owning a mansion in Newport, Rhode Island.
Poet & Translator
Lazarus' parents supported her interest in poetry. In 1866, her father published a book of her poetry called Poems and Translations Written Between the Ages of Fourteen and Seventeen. Two years later, Lazarus sent her writing to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was sufficiently impressed to become her mentor. During her lifetime, Lazarus met with other famous writers, including Robert Browning, William Morris and Henry James.
Lazarus was well known during her lifetime. She published more than 50 poems in popular magazines, including Lippincott’s and The Century. She also published a book of poetry, called Admetus and Other Poems, in 1871, and a novel, called Alide: An Episode in Goethe’s Life, in 1874. In addition to writing, she received critical acclaim for translating the work of the Heinrich Heine, a German Jewish poet.
Emma also wrote commentary about the literature of her era. She believed that a unique American aesthetic was developing, apart from the European. She hailed writers she believed represented this new aesthetic, including Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
“The New Colossus”
Lazarus wrote “The New Colossus,” the poem for which she is best-known today, in 1883. It was created to sell at an auction to raise money to build the pedestal on which the Statue of Liberty would stand in New York harbor. (Although the statue was a gift from the people of France, American contributors paid for the platform.)
In the poem, Lazarus referred to the Statue of Liberty as “Mother of Exiles,” and wrote, “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!” “The New Colossus” became famous only after Lazarus’s death. In 1901, her friend Georgina Schuyler found the poem. In 1903, it was inscribed on a plaque that remains on display in the museum on Liberty Island.
In addition to writing, by the early 1880s, Lazarus was speaking out against anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, and working with the Jewish refugees who immigrated to the United States at that time. She helped found the Hebrew Technical Institute in New York, in order to provide vocational training for new Jewish immigrants. She also spoke out in favor of creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
On November 19, 1887, when she was 38 years old, Lazarus died in New York, most likely from Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
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