How a poet brought the Statue of Liberty to life

Esther Schor, biographer of Emma Lazarus, talks about what she means today.

For poet Emma Lazarus, the Statue of Liberty was an emblem of America's mission to welcome and absorb immigrants and to flourish with their arrival.

The name of poet Emma Lazarus is forever linked to the Statue of Liberty, thanks to the voice she gave to the lady with the torch:

“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!”

"She completely transformed the meaning of the statue," says Esther Schor, a Princeton University professor and author of the 2006 biography Emma Lazarus.

But this isn't a simple story. While Lazarus wrote her poem "The New Colossus" before the statue came to the US in the late 19th century, it took years for the words to be inscribed and decades to become famous. These gaps allow modern-day critics like White House policy adviser Stephen Miller to dismiss the poet's words as an irrelevant add-on, as he did during a now-famous press conference.

The critics, says Schor in an interview with the Monitor, are wrong.

Q: How did Emma Lazarus come to transform the meaning of the Statue of Liberty?

At first, the statue was ostensibly a tribute to Franco-American friendship. Édouard de Laboulaye [a French political thinker known as the  "Father of the Statue of Liberty"] wanted to honor the American emancipation of the slaves and show that it came out of the French Enlightenment.

The Americans revealed what they thought of the statue by not donating to a fund to pay for a pedestal. As part of an effort to raise money, Emma Lazarus wrote the poem to be auctioned off at an art exhibition, and it was published the following month in early 1884 by a small magazine.

She reinvisioned the statue as a Mother of Exiles. For her, the statue was an emblem of the nation's mission to welcome and absorb immigrants and to flourish with their arrival.

Q: What happened to the poem after she wrote it?

It wasn’t well known even after the inscription was installed in the statue in 1903, 15 years after she died at the age of 38. But in the 1930s, pro-immigrationists realized the poem was an eloquent statement of their cause. Since then, the poem and the statue have been inextricably linked.

Q: The last few lines of the poem still give people goosebumps. But the first several lines are anything but catchy, such as "From her beacon-hand/ Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command/ The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.” [She’s talking about New York City and, apparently, the then-city of Brooklyn.] What do you think?

Lazarus was very progressive in some ways as a poet, but her diction was old fashioned, and the first part of the sonnet deals with the history and values of the Old World. But the tone changes markedly when she begins to speak for the statue.

Q: Some people interpret the line about "wretched refuse of your teeming shore" to refer to people as trash. What did she mean and how should we understand the poem as a whole?

She was thinking about the French word refusé in the sense of people refused by their countries. That line hasn't aged well. In general, though, the poem tells you what it means. It's very direct. It's about a contrast, a renunciation of aristocracy, a turn toward something elemental – justice and love.

Q: Do you think Emma Lazarus would be known today if it wasn't for the poem ?

It is remarkable how the 14 lines in "The New Colossus" sonnet occlude the rest of her life in some ways.

In the early part of the 20th century, she was much more famous for her Jewish poems. Poems like "The Banner of the Jew" were anthologized, and she was lionized by the Zionist Organization of America.

As for now, I think she would have been recovered along with other 19th-century women poets who faded from view.

Q: How does she fit into the world of 19th century American poetry?

She was entranced by transcendentalism, and she wrote beautiful sonnets about Niagara Falls and the waters off Newport, Rhode Island.

She also understood that the center of American letters had left New England forever and was spreading west. She wrote poems about Texas, about California, and she was the first person to versify a Miwok Indian legend.

She wasn't particularly interested in poems about morality and conduct, although she was interested in justice. That was her issue. She had a very strong commitment to social justice.

Q: What drove her?

She was no socialist, but she was very interested in social class. She had a intense curiosity about history and social change and a stringent sense of what was right and what wasn’t. When the Jewish refugees began pouring into the New York harbor in 1881, she advocated for them. She taught them English, helped them find job training, tried hard to raise money for them.

The path she might have followed could have been into marriage. But she was wealthy and didn't need to and didn't want to, and she never did.

Q: What do you make of the idea that the poem wasn't part of the original Statue of Liberty, so it's an invalid add-on?

There is a criticism of the poem from the alt-right that it just doesn't matter very much — just stop bothering me with it.

To say that, you have to deny that the Statue of Liberty’s meaning is one of welcome. To say that the statue only means what it meant in 1886 when it was built is a pretty benighted and blinkered position.

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