Emma Lazarus

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A pioneering biography of the iconoclastic nineteenth-century poet and activist whose verse gave a voice to the Statue of Liberty, but whose extraordinary life has remained a mystery until now. Emma Lazarus was a woman so far ahead of her time that we are still scrambling to catch up with her. Before these categories even existed, Lazarus was a feminist, a Zionist, and an internationally famous Jewish-American writer. Drawing upon a cache of personal letters undiscovered until the 1980s, Esther Schor brings this vital woman to life in all her fascinating complexity, combining a scholar’s familiarity with Lazarus’s world with a poet’s sympathy for her subject.

Born in 1849 into a wealthy Sephardic family, Lazarus published her first volume of verse when she was just 17 and gained entaére into New York’s elite literary circles. Although she called herself an “outlaw” Jew, she nevertheless felt a deep attachment to Jewish history and peoplehood. Her compassion for the downtrodden Jews of Eastern Europe—refugees whose lives had little in common with her own—helped redefine the meaning of America itself. Schor brings to life a Jew with few fellow travelers: Lazarus made her coreligionists uncomfortable with her Zionist views and she made Christians squirm with her denunciations of anti-Semitism. This groundbreaking biography argues persuasively for Lazarus’s place in history as a poet, an activist, and a prophet of the world we inhabit today—a world that she helped to invent.

Book Excerpt

Emma Lazarus and the Three Anne Franks

Not long ago, on a humid May morning, I visited my daughter’s fourth-grade class. We parents gathered on the blacktop behind the school, where, amid a mad, high buzz of cicadas, the children stood in stiff poses, hot in their costumes, for the Annual Wax Museum. Here was Jackie Robinson, played by a white boy with freckles, and there was Lady Diana Spencer, played by a tall black girl in a foil tiara; perched on the jungle gym, a recent arrival from Pakistan wore Eleanor Roosevelt’s unmistakable blue felt hat and wallflower dress. When I touched his hand-the cue to begin his autobiography-a stout black boy, as Malcolm X, told of marrying “Betty X” before being shot in Harlem; “El Duque,” played by the daughter of a Guatemalan gardener, recalled his passage through shark-infested waters. This year’s theme had been announced as “Women and Minorities,” though after an appeal from the mom of a would-be Babe Ruth, the teachers broadened it to “People Who Made a Difference.” At the edge of the blacktop, a pigtailed Leonardo da Vinci gossiped in her Sydney accent with a tiny George Washington, coiffed in a poof of baby powder.

As I wound my way among these sweaty monuments, Emma Lazarus’s famous sonnet, “The New Colossus,” was on my mind: Give me your tired, your poor / your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Among these poor, tired kids, huddling in their Wax Museum tableaus, was the breathing proof of her prophecy-multicultural America, the “Mother of Exiles,” welcoming all in need of freedom. I had learned about the fortunes of this poem, how it had flared and faded from view in the 1880s, emerged fifteen years after Emma’s death on a plaque inside the Statue’s pedestal, and been resurrected in the 1930s by pro-immigrationists during an era of restrictive quotas. The poem had shaped America’s self-image, certainly, but not spontaneously, not continuously. Like many prophecies, it was well ahead of its time, and decades later it proved an exquisite tool for men and women trying to carve a new, inclusive destiny for America.

Finding no Emma Lazarus in the Wax Museum was not a surprise. But I was surprised to find that all the Jewish girls in the class (except my own pith-helmeted daughter, channeling Jane Goodall) had chosen to be Anne Frank. Each of the three Anne Franks had parted her hair on the right, clipped it on the left; each clutched a small book entitled Diary; each wore the white, Peter Pan collar of the girl who wouldn’t grow up. There were small variations-one was blond and curly, a recent arrival from Israel; another had feline, green eyes; the third, giggly and nervous, consulted her diary frequently for what looked like prompts. Each kept a respectful distance from the others, as though it were hard enough to be Anne Frank without competing for the title. They’d clicked on the same website, each reciting solemnly, “I died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen in March 1945- but after my death my dream came true: I became a published author.” The eerie trio made me shudder, as much for Anne Frank’s death as for the grim Wax Museum heroine she had become.

I was not much older than my daughter when my parents gave me Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl for Chanukah, inscribed, Here is a young girl we would like you to know. As I came to know her, she became a heroine of mine, too, but for all the wrong reasons. She was proud and bad and furtive; she’d doted on her father, hated her mother, mocked the neighbors, and flirted, effectively, with a boy. Best of all, Anne was willing to tell me everything, and I adored her for it; I was her confidante—her “Kitty.” I loved Anne Frank neither for hoping nor dying but for being so shameless, so unlovable.

Emma Lazarus’s diary does not survive, and of her childhood until the age of fourteen, there are no traces at all. We know that she was at least a fourth-generation American, the scion of a wealthy Sephardic family in New York, but little else. Whether she was mischievous or aimed to please, we cannot know; whether she went to school, played the piano, memorized Shakespeare, became her father’s favorite, or went to synagogue, we can only surmise. We live on the dark side of her moon. For nearly a century following her death in 1887, the only hints of the passionate, vibrant life she lived were a scattering of letters sent to her famous correspondents, a small cache of letters she received, and a maudlin memoir by her sister Josephine.

All that changed on a Saturday afternoon in July 1980, when the retired theater critic Rosamond Gilder emptied the contents of a tall wooden cupboard into the arms of the scholar Bette Roth Young. It was a trove of one hundred-odd letters sent by Emma Lazarus and her sisters to their friend Helena deKay Gilder, Rosamond’s late mother. Sublimely trusting, Gilder handed over three hundred frail sheets of paper, directing her visitor to the nearby Lenox, Massachusetts, post office to photocopy them. Many nickels and fifteen years later, these letters and others appeared in Young’s landmark volume, Emma Lazarus in Her World: Life and Letters (1995).

In her letters to her own “Kitty,” Emma Lazarus comes alive as never before. Alert and witty, scandalously smart, she devours the heady pleasures of the Gilded Age: music, theater, art, poetry, novels, politics, history. She acquires powerful mentors in Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson and befriends the daughters of Emerson and Hawthorne. She engages blue bloods and mountain men; eccentricity brings out the best in her. She is a snob; she is a champion of the oppressed.

With women, her attachments are ardent and sustained. With men, her friendships are more tenuous; she strives to balance friendship and intimacy, then impetuously tips the scales. She lives a vibrant writing life, taking up a myriad of genres-lyric poetry, blank-verse narrative, drama, translation, novel, short story, essay, polemic, even muckraking expose-and writing the first prose poem to appear in English. Traveling abroad for the first time at thirty-three, she takes London by storm. By the time she returns to Europe two years later, she has braved the ordeal of a lifetime, defying both enemies of the Jews and Jews who championed their people but without her visionary realism.

Adrift, depressed, cut off from the very sources of her power, she tries out the role of Henry James heroine in foreign capitals until a fatal illness breaks her stride. The same brio that makes her a joy can make her fearsome. Disappointed or betrayed, she does not shy from conflict not with Ralph Waldo Emerson, not with genteel anti-Semites, not with the many Jews who mocked her vision of a Jewish state in Palestine. Angered, she is unsparing her pen scathing. A woman of action; a secular, nationalist Jew; a spinster with a sharp eye for sexual innuendo, unafraid to face her own longings-in so many ways, she is more of our time than of her own. Here, at last, is Emma Lazarus, a being, not a poem. Here is a woman I would like you to know.

Reader's Guide

Mention Emma Lazarus, and the Statue of Liberty is most likely to come to mind. But this 19th-century scion of an illustrious Sephardic family was so much more than the voice behind a single poem: an internationally known author, an ambitious single woman, an advocate for the oppressed, a snob, a caustic decrier of anti-Semitism, a firebrand for a Jewish homeland when most ridiculed the idea, a believer in a multicultural America a century before there was even such a term.

In Emma Lazarus, Esther Schor brings the poet to life with all her complications and contradictions. The following is a list of questions to help guide you through her life and work.

Assimilating Jews, Assimilating America

“My religious convictions (if such they can be called), and the circumstances of my life have led me somewhat apart from our people.” — Emma Lazarus

“The United States is essentially the greatest poem.” —Walt Whitman

    Born in 1849 in New York City, Lazarus grew up a privileged daughter in a metropolis whose population was exploding, whose culture and industry were booming. How did Lazarus’s upbringing during a time of progress—when Central Park was being created, and the Brooklyn Bridge painstakingly planned—shape her character and affect her literary endeavors?

    Lazarus’s illustrious Sephardic family had roots in America reaching back to colonial days, but she liked to describe herself and her immediate relatives as Jewish outlaws. “Poetry became a way for her to be Jewish in America,” Schor writes. Specifically, how did Lazarus connect to her Judaism through her vocation? Did this connection change as she became more outspoken on Jewish matters? Do you think at the end of her life she would have described herself in the same way?

    Lazarus credited Daniel Deronda—George Eliot’s novel about a young Englishman who dedicates his life to building a homeland in Palestine—with opening her eyes to the need for a Jewish state. She called Progress and Poverty, Henry George’s work on economic reform, “not so much a book as an event,” igniting her awareness of the need for ethical responsibility. Both works were written by non-Jews. Lazarus socialized and identified with non-Jews, expressing her fervent belief in assimilation and universalism. How was Lazarus’s inclusiveness perceived, by Jews and non-Jews? Was it in keeping with the times? How would such a universalist approach to specifically Jewish problems be seen today?

    Lazarus created a category for herself that we take for granted now: the semi-affiliated Jew with a devotion to her people. What forces inspired Lazarus to take on this role? Why is it more prevalent now than in her day?

    In “The New Colossus,” Lazarus calls the Statue of Liberty the “mother of exiles,” writing about it in a distinctly Jewish vein. What was Lazarus’s vision of American society, and how was it fueled by a Jewish sensibility? How does contemporary America resemble or differ from the image laid out in Lazarus’s poem, written more than 100 years ago?

    Upon reading Lazarus’s sonnet, the poet and critic James Russell Lowell wrote, “your sonnet gives its subject a raison d’être.” What was the statue’s purpose, and how did Lazarus’s words shift that purpose from the statue’s initial intent?

The Power of the Pen

“What do you read?…You read everything, I know & my question is idle.” — Henry James, in a letter to Emma Lazarus

“The Jewish Question which I plunged into so recklessly & impulsively last Spring has gradually absorbed more & more of my mind & heart.” — Lazarus, to Rose Hawthorne Lathrop

    Schor writes that Lazarus “invented the role of an American Jewish writer.” How did she do this? How did this role affect her writing? What sort of implicit responsibilities and challenges did it carry? Was it limiting or broadening?

    Did she see herself as a Jewish leader, and if so, was this position ever in conflict with her vision of herself as a writer? Was it different for Lazarus than it is for a writer like Philip Roth today?

    On occasion, Lazarus would write about the same subject for two different publications, and she would shift her tone accordingly. (“One acidic, for Jewish readers; the other sweetened, for a general audience,” writes Schor about Lazarus’ reviews of the short story collection The Jews of Barnow. Was this simply an instance of not revealing one’s true position “in front of the goyim”? Do writers today make similar accommodations?

    Lazarus wrote in a variety of forms; she harangued and chided and inspired her audiences in lyric poems and blank verse, in essays and novels, and in weekly newspaper columns. Can you think of an American author today who covers similarly wide ground? Was Lazarus a particular case, or are cultural forces at work that make writers today more specialized?

The Second Sex

“I cannot resist the impulse of expressing to you my extreme disappointment at finding you have so far modified the enthusiastic estimate you held of my literary labors…” —Emma Lazarus, to Ralph Waldo Emerson

“I went out on Thursday evng. to meet my ‘fate’ and greatly to my disappointment he was not there…so I have to resume my position of old maid ad infinitum unless I inherit a fortune or turn out to be a genius like Miss Coutts or George Eliot.” —Lazarus, to Helena deKay Gilder

    From the time she was a precocious adolescent, Lazarus displayed a healthy—some might say outsized—confidence that would be unusual for a woman in the year 2006, let alone in the late 19th century. Where did Lazarus derive her self-assurance? How did this quality serve her in her career and in her personal life?

    When Schor writes about Lazarus’s visit to an ailing Emerson in Concord, she describes her “willfulness,” and mentions Ellen Emerson’s perception of her as an “alien, aggressive presence.” Time and again, Jewish women have been characterized as pushy and assertive. How does Lazarus’s behavior fit in with the stereotype? How does it complicate it? Did Lazarus try to counter this perception, or use it to her advantage? Would Lazarus have been viewed differently if she had not been Jewish? Does this same stereotype of Jewish women exist today or is it more nuanced?

    When the freethinking, older Maria Oakley suddenly announced her engagement to a man she had known for only a few weeks, the 32-year-old Lazarus was devastated. Such developments threw into sharp relief her ambivalence about marriage and children. What was the nature of her ambivalence? Did her literary ambition trump her desire for a traditional domestic life? Or was writing merely an excuse for her to remain in a state of “perpetual daughterhood,” living independently in her wealthy father’s house? How much do you think Lazarus was held back because of the mores of the day? Could you see her marrying—or giving in to her curiosities about “Boston marriages”—if she lived today?

    After her death, the obituaries took note of Lazarus’s “courage and logic of a man” and her “masculine vigor.” Her sister Josephine’s memoir, on the other hand, drew a portrait of Lazarus as a shy, “distinctly feminine” writer, a “true woman.” Was the fact of Lazarus’s sex—and the myriad ways she deviated from the soft, retiring ideal of femininity—as much of an issue as her Jewishness? Are the two issues comparable? How did they differ in complicating Lazarus’s life and career?

Mentors, Fathers, and Friends

“Am I capable of anything worthy and true?” —Emma Lazarus, in a letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson

“I felt when I came home from your house as I imagine a good Catholic feels after Confession.” —Lazarus to Helena deKay Gilder

    From a young age, Lazarus cultivated friendships with writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great American transcendentalist and essayist, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a prominent author and abolitionist. Through these relationships, she sought confirmation of her poetic skills and entrée into the greater literary world—a world not confined by her Jewish identity. How did such mentors help to shape Lazarus’s career and establish her sense of self? How did their reactions to her Jewishness differ, and how did their positions reflect American culture at the time? Was Lazarus’s dedication of her book of poetry to Emerson simply a way to garner literary respect or the expression of an unconscious wish to perhaps pass among non-Jews?

    Throughout her career, Lazarus displayed a long-standing sympathy with and affinity for the work of Heinrich Heine—first translating his lyrics as an adolescent, turning to his stories, ballads, and poetry in her late twenties, and then writing a sonnet and what Schor calls her finest literary essay about him three years before she died. What was it about Heine that drew Lazarus to his work? What were the similarities between the two writers? The differences?

    The urbane, assimilated Lazarus was used to “genteel anti-Semitism,” according to Schor, and rarely discussed her Jewishness with her closest friend, the wealthy, worldly Helena deKay Gilder, who was disgusted by Daniel Deronda and felt Lazarus was an inappropriate match for her brother. And yet in her public life, Lazarus was unrelentingly outspoken against anti-Semitism. How did she reconcile her private and public selves?


“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” —Emma Lazarus

“Forget your huddled masses, send nerds.” —Business Week headline

    Sick and fearing death, Lazarus edited her own body of work for posterity, and omitted most of the Jewish poems, including the well-known “Banner of the Jew,” “The Crowing of the Red Cock,” and the translations of Heine’s poetry that had won her such critical praise. Why would Lazarus, who carved out a reputation for herself as a champion of the Jewish people, back away from this portion of her history?

    Lazarus, the scion of an assimilated, upper-crust family, was decidedly not a member of the class of people she was championing. How did this class difference manifest itself in Lazarus’s behavior? What are some examples from Jewish and American history of similarly aristocratic leaders defending the oppressed? Lazarus was a literary celebrity, a prolific writer acknowledged by presidents and feted by artists, a firebrand for Zionism and a defender of immigrant rights, but what she is chiefly remembered for today is giving the Statue of Liberty her voice. Is Lazarus’ legacy compromised or elevated by the iconic status of her sonnet? How do you think she would feel about the fame of this one poem, which lives on as a symbol of America, versus the relative obscurity of her other work?

    Schor opens the book with an anecdote about visiting her young daughter’s school for its annual Wax Museum performance, and seeing three girls dressed as Anne Frank (and none as Emma Lazarus). Why does Anne Frank serve as such an enduring and attractive heroine for young Jewish girls, and how is Schor trying to counter that with her depiction of Lazarus?

News and Reviews

Schor’s efforts celebrated

“Esther Schor elaborates with fierce, protective pride in Emma Lazarus.” Continue reading

NY Times on Emma Lazarus: “Never mind Emerson; Whitman would have loved it.”

“…a sympathetic and balanced life of Lazarus.” Continue reading

Harold Bloom praises Emma Lazarus

“Esther Schor, herself a poet of authentic distinction, has composed a very moving and highly useful biographical critique of Emma Lazarus, a permanent poet in American and in Jewish tradition.” Continue reading

Harold Bloom

“She Wrote a Nation’s Welcome:” The work of Emma Lazarus and her biographer Esther Schor recognized in the “Poet of Exiles” exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage

"Even if Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” had not transformed the gargantuan Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor from an aggressive monument — “Liberty Enlightening the World” — into a welcoming “Mother of Exiles”; even if she had not provided that crowned goddess with a humane voice that still resonates (“Give me your tired, your poor”); even if she had not asserted a powerful connection between liberty and opportunity, the exhibition “Emma Lazarus: Poet of Exiles” at the Museum of Jewish Heritage demonstrates that there would still be reasons to value her life and work." Continue reading

About the Author

Esther Schor

Esther Schor

ESTHER SCHOR, a poet and professor of English at Princeton University, is the author of The Hills of Holland: Poems and Bearing the Dead: The British Culture of Mourning from the Enlightenment to Victoria. She is also the editor of … Continue reading