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Poet, Translator, Activist

by Judith De Zanger, PhD

Although well known in her lifetime, 1849 - 87, Emma Lazarus' reputation as a writer, translator and political activist has mostly disappeared. Yet, her words will remain forever as a reminder of the best of American values,"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." Written as the poem "The New Colossus", these words are linked to the Statue of Liberty and vibrate with Lazarus' empathy for both the misery and hopefulness of America's immigrants. Jame R. Lowell, wrote "I like your sonnet about the Statue, much better than I like the Statue itself." Lazarus wrote it to help raise money for the pedestal but also to influence the US public to remain open to immigrants streaming in from other countries, especially the Russian Jews, who were escaping the pogroms of the 1880's. The US Government was considering closing its doors to "less desirable" immigrants, and Lazarus, being famous, hoped that her words would have an impact.

The "New Colossus" represented the culmination of a life long search for her authentic and passionate voice. Although her first collection of poems was published when she was 18, it wasn't until 14 years later that Lazarus found her true vocation through her work with the Russian Jews who were escaping anti-Semitic violence. Lazarus combated her extreme shyness to become a spokeswoman for religious tolerance, Jewish unity, and an "open-door" immigration policy. This work revitalized her writing, transforming their cries and torment into literature.

Lazarus was born in New York to a wealthy Jewish family who sheltered her from the outside world; She later wrote that she was "brought up under American institutions, amid liberal influences, in a society where all differences of race and faith were fused in a refined cosmopolitanism." Raised in a large family, Lazarus was the favorite of her father Moses, a sugar merchant, and declared "too frail" to go to school. Although confined physically, Lazarus' intellectual pursuits were encouraged and her world enlarged through her love of literature and legends. At 13, her father became her tutor and encouraged Lazarusnot just to read, but to write. Moses was determined that his daughter's writing become known and in 1867 had her poems, some written at 14, published as Poems and Translations. The book was well received and soon Lazarus met her lifelong mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Emerson was 65 when Lazarus, at the age of 18, began to correspond with him. Emerson encouraged her and wrote that her poems had "important merits", but perhaps dealt too much with life's "tragic and painful" aspects. Emerson encouraged Lazarus to experience the world first hand, "books are a safe ground,but still introductory only". With his guidance, Lazarus began to "dismiss printed books" "to see the light that plays upon the grass, to feel the mild breezes stir, to gaze at the bright, breathing sea" Lazarus also joined Emerson in encouraging American writers to break away from Old World themes and create a distinctive American culture. In 1871, Lazarus published her second book of poetry, "Admetus and Other Poems" and Emerson wrote "you have hid yourself from me until now” as these poems reflect a fullness and high equality of power." In 1874, Emerson published Parnassus, an anthology of recent poetry, and did not include Lazarus. She was devastated, "This public neglect leaves me in utter bewilderment." Lazarus entered a deep depression but ironically following Emerson's early advice, grief, passion, disaster are only materials of art, she found her way out by writing a novel which was a critical success, "the characters are drawn with a pencil as delicate as it is strong."

In the late 1870's Lazarus, struggling to find a new theme, was encouraged by both Edmund Stedman, poet and critic, and, Gustav Gottheil, the rabbi of NY's Temple Emanu-El, to turn to her Jewish heritage. Although Lazarus said she would "always be loyal to my race, but I feel no religious fervor", she did write a powerful drama, "The Dance to Death", based on the slaughter of Jews, blamed for the plague, in the Middle Ages. This history was repeating itself in Russia and Lazarus began to work with the immigrants coming to America. When an article appeared in the Century attacking the Russian Jews, Lazarus, outraged, rushed to the editor's home and cried "Who is going to answer?" The editor, a friend, Richard Gilder, simply said, "You, of course." Lazarus wrote a beautiful and strong rebuttal, "I am all Israel's now. I have no thought, no passion, no desire save for my own people."

Overcoming extreme shyness and several bouts of depression, Lazarus became a leader in speaking out against anti-Semitism and helped to lay the ground work for the movement which eventually led to the establishment of Israel. Her poetry took on a new vigor and she published "Songs of Semite", in which one poem is an impassioned attack on violence committed in the name of religion. Lazarus died at the age of 38 not aware that in spite of opposition, the US would allow close to 2 million Jewish immigrants in by 1914 or that the state of Israel would be born. Lazarus dedicated her life and her art to helping people, "until we are all free, we are none of us free."

Learn More about Emma Lazarus . . .



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