Emma Lazarus, Jewish American Poetics, and the Challenge of modernity.(Critical Essay)

By Omer-Sherman, Ranen | Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Emma Lazarus, Jewish American Poetics, and the Challenge of modernity.(Critical Essay)


Omer-Sherman, Ranen, Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers


Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) was a poet who struggled to translate the Jewish experience into the American idiom for the sake of masses of immigrants seeking to negotiate their passage at the border crossing of American culture. Reading her today can teach us a great deal about the degree of imagination required in the journey from the humiliation of dispersion to the joys of Jewish and American nationalisms. I see Lazarus as the harbinger of the modern American ethnic Jew (and perhaps in some ways American ethnic writing as a corpus), one possessed simultaneously of an insider and an outsider sensibility. But "translation" of identity, like that of a text, always entails losses as well as gains, and in claiming one Jewish history she remained a stranger to other ways of seeing the past. This essay examines the contradictions between modern identity and ancient lineage that animate Lazarus's late body of proto-Zionist poetry and polemics.

There was a dynamic period when it seemed that Emma Lazarus might become more than a marginal figure in America's Protestant literary culture. By the late 1870s and 1880s, Robert Browning, Walt Whitman, Henry James, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and many others had all praised her translations of Heine as well as her own verse that appeared in Lippincott's and Century. But Lazarus was fated to be memorialized exclusively for "The New Colossus," her great paean to American largesse, and by Jewish Americans for the few years of poetry, essays, and political activity dedicated to their cause. Representative of this trend, the Jewish scholar and activist Henrietta Szold would celebrate Lazarus as "the most distinguished literary figure produced by American Jewry and possibly the most eminent poet among Jews since Heine and Judah Loeb Gordon" (qtd. in Vogel 24). And in the mid-twentieth century, a highly regarded Jewish scholar, Solomon Liptzin, remarked that in the crucial years of the late nineteenth century

only a single Jewish writer, the Sephardic poetess Emma Lazarus, succeeded in groping her way during solitary and tragic years from early ignorance and indifference to profound insight and prophetic vision. Phoenix-like, the tired heiress of Colonial Jewry arose resplendent in fresh vigor and heralded a heroic resurgence of her ancient people. (113)

Lazarus is increasingly celebrated as the first Jewish American poet to produce poems of significant imagination and lyrical force. Nevertheless, until recently her achievements were largely forgotten; among late-twentieth-century scholars, Lazarus's role in Jewish American history still remains uncertain. Though she is often ignored in major studies of Zionism, I would contend that to fully understand the unusual literary and polemical pedigree of American Zionism, one must begin with Lazarus's assimilationist strategies. (1) By far the most influential Jewish American literary figure of the nineteenth century, Lazarus's reflections on the status of the Jew in Gentile society and on the question of the Jews' return to Palestine offer rich literary and historical contexts for examining later imaginative responses to the perpetually conflicted nature of Zionism in America. Feminist critics such as Wendy Zierler, Diane Lichtenstein, and Carole S. Kessner have persuasively claimed Lazarus as a founding Mother of Jewish American literature, unfairly neglected by shapers of the American literary canon because of gender and religion. (2) This essay investigates a dimension of the poet's work that is still neglected, namely her timely appropriations of Protestant conventions relating to the Hebrews and the Holy Land.

Anticipating Horace Kallen in a later generation, Lazarus saw ethnicity, not religion, as the key to Jewish survival. Perhaps this was the way to translate the unchanging Jew into terms that would be the most palatable in the American milieu. For Lazarus, Jewish ethnicity, if it was to have any tangible substance, would necessarily be linked to a concrete discourse of origins and homelands. …

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