November 19, 1887 marks the death of Emma Lazarus, an American poet who is best known for her sonnet, The New Colossus, which is inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. The poem was written for an auction, held to raise money for the pedestal of the Statue. Sixteen years after her death, the poem was inscribed and placed on the pedestal as a memorial to her.
Emma Lazarus was descended from some of the earliest European settlers in North America. Like many American colonists, Sephardic Jews fled Portugal due to religious persecution, when Jews were expelled from the country in 1492. Many of these settlers first fled to Brazil, then controlled by the Dutch, but when the Portuguese reconquered the territory, they fled to North America and settled in New Amsterdam in 1654.
Born in New York on July 22, 1849, Emma was the fourth of seven children of Moses and Esther Nathan Lazarus. She was well-educated with a focus on literature and languages, including German, French, and Italian. As a teenager, she wrote original poetry as well as translations of authors such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Her father encouraged her work and when she was seventeen, published a volume of her work entitled Poems and Translations Written Between the Ages of Fourteen and Seventeen. Emma sent a copy to Ralph Waldo Emerson and he became a mentor, praising her work and offering appropriate criticism.
During the 1870s, she published her poetry in magazines, produced a second book, Admetus and Other Poems, which received excellent reviews, and wrote a drama, The Spagnoletto, about the artist José de Ribera.
Emma’s family were not religiously observant and her father socialized with wealthy Christian families to integrate his family into Christian society. Emma attended literary salons, traveled frequently to Europe and corresponded with many influential authors and critics of the time. In spite of this, Emma was aware of her outsider status and that she was always seen as a “Jewess.”
In spite of her lack of religious observance, she had always been interested in her heritage often translating medieval Hebrew poets, but in the 1880s she began to focus her attention on suffering of Jews in Eastern Europe. Between 1881 and 1884, violence against Jews increased dramatically, especially in the Russian Empire with such events as the Warsaw pogram, the Kishinev pogram, and the Kiev pogram. This touched of a wave of immigration into the United States of people who were destitute and fleeing for their lives.
Emma became an advocate for them, publishing many articles on the subject, visiting refugees, and volunteering at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. She helped with the establishment of the Hebrew Technical Institute to provide vocational training. It was in 1883, when she penned the poem she is most well-known for, The New Colossus. The “brazen giant of Greek fame” refers to the Colossus of Rhodes.
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 harbor 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!”
Little is known about Emma’s private life or why she chose not to marry. On her return from a trip to Europe in 1887, she was very ill. Two months later on November 19th, she died at the age of 38, possibly from Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She is buried in Beth-Olom Cemetery in Brooklyn with her family.
For more on the life of Emma Lazarus, see her entry at the Jewish Women’s Archive.
Find out what else happened on November 19 in Women’s History.