Life of Miss Liberty's Muse

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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. …