Byline: Merle Rubin, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Almost everyone knows Emma Lazarus as the author of "The New Colossus," the sonnet at the base of the Statue of
Liberty ending with the famous lines:
Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
The story of how this poem came to be there is an interesting one, full of surprising twists and turns. Originally composed in 1883 as part of an exhibition to raise funds for installing the wonderfully symbolic gift from France, the sonnet got a great deal of admiring attention in the press. Yet just three years later, when the statue was officially dedicated, the poem was all but forgotten.
Only thanks to the efforts of two dedicated champions of the oppressed did it find its way back onto a plaque at Miss Liberty's base and into public consciousness.
But this story is merely one among many fascinating aspects of the life and work of Emma Lazarus, who is the subject of a new biography by poet and Princeton University professor Esther Schor.
Born in 1849, the fourth of seven children in a wealthy Sephardic Jewish family who had been in America since colonial times, Lazarus was just 38 years old when she died of Hodgkin's Disease in 1887. But in the course of a life filled with social activism and social activities she also managed to produce an impressive body of work.
Reading about her poetry, fiction, verse drama, criticism, journalism and brilliant translations of Heine and Spanish Jewish poets, not to mention her efforts on behalf of immigrants, her fight against anti-Semitism, her championship of a Jewish homeland, and her friendships with such literary figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson, abolitionist Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson (who was also a mentor to Emily Dickinson), Henry James, Robert Browning, William Morris, it becomes clear that she herself is a key figure in American literary history.
Indeed, in 2005 the Library of America series published a selection of her poetry edited by John Hollander.
Lazarus was, as people for some reason like to put it, "ahead of her time" in an amazing number of ways. Unable to believe in the religious teachings of Judaism or any other organized faith, not even Unitarianism or Ethical Culture she examined the question of how a nonobservant unbeliever like herself could presume to identify herself as Jewish.
One way in which she acted on her identity was to speak out loud and clear against anti-Semitism, which by the 1870s was frighteningly resurgent, with savage pogroms in Russia and milder but insidious anti-Jewish and anti-immigrant feeling on the rise in countries like England and America.
Unlike many of her contemporaries who expressed their concern by denouncing the "un-Christian" murderousness of the pogroms, Lazarus made a point of calling attention to the fact that hatred of the Jews was something embedded in Christianity which needed to be rooted out. Her outspokenness can be seen in these stanzas from her powerful poem "The Crowing of the Red Cock," in which she compares the thousand-year suffering of the Jews to the passion of Jesus:
Each crime that wakes in man the beast
Is visited upon his kind.
The lust of mobs, the greed of priest,
The tyranny of kings, combined
To root his seed from earth again,
His record is one cry of pain.
When the long roll of Christian guilt
Against his sires and kin is known,
The flood of tears, the life-blood spilt,
The agony of ages shown,
What oceans can the stain remove
From Christian law and Christian love?
Almost alone among American Jews of her time, Lazarus (who'd read and admired George Eliot's "Daniel Deronda") championed the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine years before Herzl. But eager as she was for persecuted East European Jews to find freedom and fulfillment in reclaiming the ancient land of their ancestors, Lazarus was no less staunch in defending immigrants who came to America.
How could Lazarus, along with other liberal thinkers of her day (and to a somewhat lesser extent ours), reconcile her sympathy for nationalism with her belief in universalist values? Ms. Schor contends that holding such beliefs was "not incoherent," but "firmly in line with George Eliot's view . . . that the very impulse for nationalism was universal."
Eliot had written that the sense of self-sacrifice and devotion to a higher cause inherent in nationalism could in time inspire individuals towards a universal humanity.
In Lazarus' case, identifying with Judaism's long history of resistance to tyranny enabled her to recognize "how the little Judaic tribe, wrestling for freedom with the invincible tyrant of the world " were the spiritual parents "of those who braved exile and death . . . to found upon the New England rocks, within the Pennsylvania woods . . . the Republic of the West."
America, in Lazarus' eyes, was not Babylon, but the Promised Land.
Ms. Schor lauds Lazarus for seeing how all of us in this "nation of immigrants" contribute to America by drawing on the strengths of our particular ethnic heritages. But unlike today's preachers of political over-correctness, Lazarus also saw the need for immigrants to develop the skills, attitudes and more "enlightened" ways of thinking that would enable them both to contribute to and benefit from their new country.
Though she was quick to refute anti-immigrant prejudice by pointing out how many of the Russian refugees were cultivated, professional class people, she also dealt forthrightly with the fact that she herself was appalled by some of the more backward specimens, the "wretched refuse" that Lady Liberty was nonetheless happy to welcome.
In the final sections of her biblically cadenced prose poem "By the Waters of Babylon," Lazarus expresses her repugnance for the "caftaned wretch with flowing curls and gold-pierced ears," but insists nonetheless on the need to embrace him as "friend" and "brother":
Imprisoned in dark corners of misery and oppression,
closely he drew about him the dust-grey filaments, soft
as silk and stubborn as steel, until he lay death-stiffened
in mummied seclusion.
And the world has named him an ugly worm, shunning
the blessed daylight.
But when the emancipating springtide breathes
wholesome, quickening airs. . .
. . . lo, the Soul of Israel
bursts her cobweb sheath, and flies forth attired in the
winged beauty of immortality.
For Lazarus, the "dusk-grey filaments" that form this unfortunate man's cocoon are the Talmud and the Kabbala. But although her negative view of these texts as purely obscurantist may be at odds with more recent thinking on the subject, her central insight stands: The "caftaned wretch" has been made what he is by centuries of oppression and confinement to the ghetto.
Although it may be natural to feel repelled by his "backwardness," it is morally necessary to understand and embrace him. One cannot but admire Lazarus' ability to combine emotional frankness with high-minded ethical rectitude.
Ms. Schor's strong engagement with Lazarus is evident throughout this biography. But despite her credentials as a poet and a professor of English, the book is not particularly well written.
Sentences that convey basic information are murkily constructed, requiring careful rereading to ascertain specifically who the antecedents of pronouns are or exactly when the event in question is taking place. Worse yet, we read that Lazarus' artist friend Helena deKay Gilder "flaunted" (instead of "flouted") convention and that Ralph Waldo Emerson "had swayed over lecterns on two continents. . ." (which might, perhaps, be said of Dylan Thomas, but certainly not of Emerson!)
The great strength of Ms. Schor's book, however, is the extent to which she focuses on Lazarus' actual writings, with generous quotes from her rousing political essays, her insightful literary criticism and, most of all, her richly varied body of poetry.
Ms. Schor expertly integrates her account of Lazarus' life with discussions of the poet's work, paying attention also to her short stories, letters and "Alide," her fascinating novel about Goethe's romance with Friederike Brion which portrays the great genius as a complacent egotist and which prompted the Russian novelist Turgenev to write Lazarus an admiring letter.
Over a dozen poems are reprinted in the appendix, a handy resource for the reader hungry for firsthand experience of Lazarus' poetic voice. Whether singing the praises of America, pondering questions of religious faith or sounding the alarm against anti-Semitism, hers is clearly a voice worth listening to.
Merle Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.
By Esther Schor
Nextbook/ Schocken, $21.95, 368 pages…