I met Emma Lazarus for the first time in NYC a few weeks ago while visiting there with my daughter, Lisa. She had never been to New York so, of course, we did all the expected tourist activities, which included the ferry ride out to the Statue of Liberty. It’s amazing what you can learn when you take the time to walk through the museum located in the base of the Statue and find out how it all came to be.
Most of us know that the Statue was a gift from France to honor the US on our 100th year celebration. We know she stands in the New York Harbor and holds up a torch intended to welcome immigrants. And, we also know that there is a saying some place on the statue that says “…give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…” But, that’s about it.
One of the things we learned that day was that after the statue was delivered to the US it stayed in crates for almost two years because New York didn’t have enough money to build a platform big enough and strong enough to hold up a statue as large as this one.
Fund raising wasn’t going well until Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of The New York World newspaper, raised more than $100,000 by asking everyone in the country to contribute something, even if it was only a penny. He promised that he would publish the names of everyone who contributed, regardless of the amount,in his newspaper. And, he did!
As part of another fund raising effort, a poem was commissioned to be written about the statue. This is where Emma Lazarus comes in. She was a young Jewish poet, who was very popular during the late 1800’s. Her poem, titled “The New Colossus” was used to help fund the building of the platform. She wrote that poem in 1883 but it wasn’t until 1903 that the poem was engraved on a bronze plaque and placed on the base of the Statue.
Emma was well respected by contemporary poets, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Robert Browning. As I stood there reading the plaque about Emma Lazarus I knew she would be one of the women I wanted to include in one of my blogs. I knew Emma was a wise and influential woman because instead of asking one of these more famous men to write a poem, they asked Emma.
It is also interesting to note that Emma’s parents had immigrated to the United States to escape the persecution of Jews in Russia Emma’s parents were very wealthy and chose to educate their daughter at home. Emma started writing poetry at a very young age. After high school she had a strong desire to go back to Europe and learn more about her Jewish roots and spent several years there writing about her experiences.
Emma died at the age of 37 in 1887. Since the poem wasn’t placed on the statue until 1903 she never knew how significant this poem would become. There is so much more to this poem than just that one famous lines. It deserves reading, so I’m including it in its entirety here. Partly because I think we will benefit from reading the whole piece and partly as a tribute to Emma Lazarus who died all too soon and has mostly been forgotten as the author of the poem on the Statue of Liberty.
THE NEW COLOSSUS by Emma Lazarus is located on a separate page under the poem’s title.