(1849 - 1887)
Poems - Volume I
Poems - Volume II
==== JERUSALEM POST
November 23, 2006
By Esther Schor
368 pages; $21.95
Unapologetically ambitious, Jewish and female - a difficult combination in the United States of the 19th century - poet Emma Lazarus is emerging today as a cultural icon.
While she was a prolific writer, composing a considerable body of poetry and numerous essays on literary and cultural issues, she is often recalled largely as the composer of the sonnet "The New Colossus," which appears as the inscription on the base of the Statue of Liberty.
As many American schoolchildren can tell you, the sonnet begins: "Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."
Esther Schor's new biography, Emma Lazarus, part of the Jewish Encounters series published by Schocken Books, moves within and beyond the "huddled masses" to which Lazarus will be forever tied. Following the current trend of searching for new ethnic heroes among history's long list of forgotten faces, Schor focuses on recovering Lazarus as a kind of creative foremother for contemporary American Jews, seeing the poet's career through the lens of her minority status in an era before the major Jewish immigration to New York.
For Schor, Lazarus is also a model for today's secular Jews, as she distanced herself from traditional Jewish law but remained an identifying member of the tribe who, unlike her sister, never converted to Christianity.
Of course, as with all biographies, it is important to approach the book with an awareness that any written account of a person's life is often heavily colored by the writer's agenda - whether stated or subconscious.
Was Lazarus - who died tragically at 38 - a feminist, Zionist, sexually ambiguous secular Jew who struggled all her life with the underlying anti-Semitism of her peers, as Schor seems to suggest? About 120 years after Lazarus's death, with limited records of her life, such questions are nearly impossible to answer.
BUT SCHOR certainly makes a good case for her profile. Not only does she utilize a cache of Lazarus's letters discovered in the 1980s, she also fills in the background with historical research and careful, competent literary analysis of Lazarus's work - both the heralded selections and the less-popular poems and essays.
One has to hand it to Schor for giving some of Lazarus's old-fashioned - and frankly cringe-worthy - lyric poetry a fair read. She points out that what some critics have seen as unfinished or hasty may have simply been a more passionate, almost stream-of-consciousness style. And Schor never simplistically judges Lazarus's work, but attempts instead to read the personal and political motives behind it.
Often those motives turn out to include Lazarus's search for an ethnic identity that can match her role as an artist. Much is made of her feelings of loneliness and insecurity, which Schor tends to trace to the poet's precarious social position. While Lazarus befriended her Christian peers and was published widely in standard journals of the time, Schor chronicles the ambivalence and occasional anti-Semitism evinced by Lazarus's cohorts - and the feeling on the part of Lazarus that she didn't really fit in.
Born in 1849 in Manhattan into a wealthy Sephardi family, Lazarus was at once a part of the genteel society around her and also - due to her ethnic origin - somewhat apart. While Americans of the time were entranced by the ancient Hebrews - the race from which Jesus emerged - they were far less attracted to the working-class European Jews who were beginning to stream into New York.
Lazarus, like writer Henry James (with whom she socialized), had mixed feelings about these Jewish immigrants who would one day change the face of the city. The book includes selections of Lazarus's essays and poems about the new Ashkenazi Jews, which reveal her struggle to maintain her role as a member of New York aristocracy while attempting to cast her people in a positive light.
In an interesting chapter, Schor presents a reading of Lazarus's poem "The Test," in which the poet describes both her own embarrassment and her commitment to accepting the ghetto Jew she describes as a "caftaned wretch... nerveless his fingers, puny his frame, haunted by the bat-like phantoms of superstition in his brain."
For Schor, Lazarus's honesty about her own discomfort amounts to a kind of heroism, and suggests "the Babylon in her deeply American soul." Lazarus's exhortation of her fellow Americans - and herself - to work toward creating a society friendly to ethnic variety is for Schor one way in which Lazarus invents "the role of the American Jewish writer." It is Lazarus's belief in ethnic diversity and the need to change the fabric of the US to suit that diversity that is, for this book, her true mark on the culture.
PERHAPS ANOTHER way in which Lazarus set the stage for later American Jewish artists was her self-image as an "outlaw Jew," as she called herself. Like Alan Ginsberg and Philip Roth after her, the writer as she is depicted in Schor's biography had a straightforward, somewhat provocative style, first dedicating a book of poetry boldly to her "friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson," the famed transcendentalist writer and thinker, and then writing an angry letter to him when he didn't include her in an anthology he was publishing.
In a late, unpublished sonnet entitled "Assurance," she also wrote frankly about sexuality, and Schor notes that the poem describes a female love object.
In this "outlaw" status, which also gave her a voice as a social activist, many readers may recognize the beginnings of today's American Jewish struggle for identity. A kind of fringe selfhood predicated more on social stereotypes than on actual religious identity becomes a viable option. For those who see such an identity as lacking meaning, Lazarus's heritage is not inspirational - as Schor would see it - but tragic.
But there are other sides to Lazarus's work that Schor (and others who have written about Lazarus) downplays. She was a fierce Jewish nationalist and Zionist whose work could be easily compared to early Israeli poetry in its symbols of the physically and morally strong New Jew. While Schor is quick to note that Lazarus saw nationalism only as a path towards universalism, one could understand the tension between the two aspects of her work - nationalism and universalism - in a variety of different ways.
Whatever one takes from Lazarus's life and work, it is clear that the time has come for an exploration of this complex artist. Schor's book not only presents a nuanced version of Lazarus's life story, it also suggests many areas for further study of her poetry and essays on social matters. While not all readers will cheer Schor's take on Lazarus, everyone will find some point to consider - and maybe argue about.
And that might be just what Emma Lazarus would want.
The Banner of the Jew
Wake, Israel, wake!
The glorious Maccabean rage,
The sire heroic, hoary-gray,
His five-fold lion-lineage:
The wise, the Elect, the Help-of-God,
The burst-of-Spring, the Avenging Rod.
mountain-ridge they saw
Jerusalem's empty streets, her shrine
Laid waste where Greeks profaned the Law,
With idol and with pagan sign.
Mourners in tattered black were there,
With ashes sprinkled on their hair.
Then from the stony
peak there rang
A blast to ope the graves: down poured
The Maccabean clan, who sang
Their battle-anthem to the Lord.
Five heroes lead, and following, see,
Ten thousand rush to victory!
Oh for Jerusalem's
To blow a blast of shattering power,
To wake the sleepers high and low,
And rouse them to the urgent hour!
No hand for vengeance - but to save,
A million naked swords should wave.
Oh deem not dead that
Say not the mystic flame is spent!
With Moses' law and David's lyre,
Your ancient strength remains unbent.
Let but an Ezra rise anew,
To lift the Banner of the Jew!
A rag, a mock at first
When men have bled and women wept,
To guard its precious folds from wrong,
Even they who shrunk, even they who slept,
Shall leap to bless it, and to save.
Strike! for the brave revere the brave!
December 31, 2006
By CALEB CRAIN
By Esther Schor.
Illustrated. 347 pp. Nextbook/Schocken. $21.95.
In 1883, France insisted on giving America a large copper statue of a woman holding a torch, and America had to pay for the pedestal. It was embarrassingly hard to find the money, and Emma Lazarus, a much published and well-connected poet, was asked to contribute a poem for a fund-raiser. Her sonnet, “The New Colossus,” imagined the statue — called “Liberty Enlightening the World” — addressing the Old World with majestic brusqueness: “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp! ... Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Today, some of Lazarus’s alliteration seems heavy-handed — “world-wide welcome,” “wretched refuse” — but the closing lines still have the power to raise goosebumps.
Drawing on letters not discovered until 1980 and not published until 1995, Esther Schor, a poet and professor of English at Princeton, has written a sympathetic and balanced life of Lazarus. In Schor’s view, Lazarus was “a woman of action; a secular, nationalist Jew; a spinster with a sharp eye for sexual innuendo, unafraid to face her own longings.” The fourth of seven children, six of them girls, Lazarus was born in 1849 into a Jewish family that had been in New York since before the Revolution. The family celebrated the High Holy Days and Passover, and for a while they kept kosher, but they do not seem to have been fastidious about their religious traditions. Indeed, Lazarus later disparaged what she called “petrified religious forms” and aspired as a Jewish intellectual to emulate Disraeli, Spinoza and Heinrich Heine — a secular Jew, a heretic and an apostate.
Lazarus’s father made his money in sugar, a business that, as Schor points out, had an unsavory connection to slavery before the Civil War. Art has often been assigned the task of beautifying a fortune not so prettily acquired, and perhaps that’s how Emma and her family understood her vocation. In any case, her father was happy to invest in her poetry. When she was 17, he had a volume of her poems and translations printed privately. (More than 200 pages long, it was dedicated to him.) A year later, when she was 18, an established publishing house picked it up and issued a second edition. Lazarus was launched.
She soon began to court literary celebrity. The same year, she met — and charmed — Ralph Waldo Emerson, then 65, through mutual friends in New York. “I would like to be appointed your professor,” he wrote her, in a letter Schor calls “unmistakably flirtatious.” But before long Emerson began to withhold his attention from the young poet. Although Schor acknowledges this was a longstanding pattern with him — Lazarus might have commiserated with Thoreau and Margaret Fuller, had they still been alive — she tries nonetheless to find an element personal to Lazarus, speculating, for instance, that Emerson was unnerved by “the sense of entitlement her elite, Sephardic parents had instilled in her.” Schor presents little evidence for this claim, which isn’t necessary to an explanation of his behavior. His early praise of Lazarus was generous but also vague, no doubt strategically so. He revealed his honest assessment of her work only after she asked him to recommend a long poem of hers to his editor at The Atlantic. He declined, telling her, “You permit feeble lines & feeble words.” Young and naïve, Lazarus reacted with rage, berating him in 1874 for leaving her work out of his anthology of the best poems ever written in English. He never replied, but must have either forgiven or forgotten the outburst. Two years later he invited Lazarus to visit him in his retirement in Concord, where he was declining into what was probably Alzheimer’s disease.
Emerson’s verdict on her poetry — praiseworthy but not in the first rank — seems just. Introducing a slim selection of her poetry last year, the critic John Hollander claimed that we are able to read Lazarus with pleasure today “now that our perspective on 19th-century American poetry has been cleared of its last vestiges of modernist bias.” For most readers, such a condition may be more aspirational than operational. But even if you acclimate yourself to finding the word “glebe” whenever you expect “soil,” and agree, as a good sport, that “sky” rhymes with “sorcery,” it won’t help; most of Lazarus’s atmospheric effects are stale in a way that transcends even the late Victorian period. Her sea nymphs, wood fairies, Orientalist scenes, languorous Creole women, and warriors are painted sentimentally, from a very limited palette of emotions. Schor hints she is aware of Lazarus’s weaknesses; she calls Lazarus’s audience “middlebrow” and admits that “hers was not an audience of close readers.” The occasions when Lazarus does break through the varnish are therefore surprising as well as beautiful. In “Off Rough Point,” Lazarus watches mist swallow the moon, and thinks of lost friends; in “Venus of the Louvre,” she recalls the poet Heine weeping at the feet of the Venus de Milo, as he mourns his inability to love.
Most of Lazarus’s life was uneventful. She never married, but had many friends, among them Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an abolitionist minister; Nathaniel Hawthorne’s daughter, Rose Lathrop; Henry James; and Robert Browning. She traveled to France and Italy. But her crisis came in the 1880s, when news broke of anti-Semitic violence in Russia. Lazarus responded strongly. In 1882, as 2,000 Russian Jewish refugees were arriving in New York monthly, she worked for the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society and became, Schor writes, “the first well-known American publicly to make the case for a Jewish state” in Palestine.
In these years, Jewish themes, always present in Lazarus’s poetry, came to the fore. After her death, one sister trumpeted these poems, while another found “the Hebraic strain” overemphasized. When Lazarus assembled a manuscript anthology of her best work in 1886, she omitted the more martial poems, but included “The New Colossus,” which emerged directly from her relief work, at the front. Concern for immigrants was not the Statue of Liberty’s official message, but it resonated. The editor and poet James Russell Lowell said the poem finally gave the statue a “raison d’être,” but the politicians were less enthusiastic, and it wasn’t read at the ceremonial unveiling in 1886. Indeed, the poem was more or less forgotten until the 1930s, when it was resurrected for its celebration of immigrants.
In the anthology she compiled in 1886, while dying of Hodgkin’s disease, Lazarus included an undated sonnet that remained unpublished until 1980. Further complicating her legacy, it is about waking from a dream with a woman’s kiss on her lips. Its tone is sensuous and delicate; the language, quiet and precise. “And didst thou dream, / This could be buried?” her dream-lover asks, then reassures her: “This is the thing that is!” Never mind Emerson; Whitman would have loved it.
Caleb Crain is the author of “American Sympathy: Men, Friendship, and Literature in the New Nation.”
The TLS n.º 5146, January 19, 2007
Deed over creed
348 pp. New York: Schocken Books. $21.95
0 8052 4216 3
Visitors to the Statue of Liberty will see some verses inscribed on a bronze plaque at the entrance: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. These famous lines were quoted by the heroine of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1942 film Saboteur, as she confronted an enemy agent at the top of the Statue; they used lo welcome visitors at the old JFK Airport arrivals terminal; and they have ensured lasting fame for their author, Emma Lazarus; she wrote the poem from which they come, ‘The New Colossus”, in 1883, to help raise funds to build the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. Yet when Lazarus died in 1887, the sonnet was not even mentioned in her obituaries; as Esther Schor argues in her biography, Emma Lazarus, its subsequent popularity has obscured Lazarus’s broader reputation, in her own time, as an activist, philanthropist and critic, as well as the first major Jewish poet in America.
Emma Lazarus was born in New York City in 1849 into a prosperous and well-established Jewish family. She started writing from a very young age, producing reams of blank verse, and translations of Heine and Schiller, which were collected into a volume and published, by her father, when she was only seventeen. Her work attracted the attention of Robert Browning, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, whom she met on a visit to England, and of Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom she cultivated as a mentor. Emerson was initially charmed by Lazarus’s precocious enthusiasm, but became irritated, after a while, by her frequent badgering and by what he regarded as her overdeveloped sense of entitlement. When he failed to include her in his anthology Parnassus, Lazarus sent him a long, indignant letter: “Your favourable opinion having been confirmed by some of the best critics of England and America”, she wrote, “I felt as if I had won for myself by my own efforts a place in any collection of American poets, & I find myself treated with absolute contempt in the very quarter where I had been encouraged to build my fondest hopes”. Her frank self-promotion can be endearing - at one point she writes to her friend Thomas Wren Ward: “I have a poem in next month’s Scribner’s which I want you to like if you possibly can” – but at times it makes her seem an odd subject for Esther Schor’s very admiring biography.
Schor makes a convincing case for an appreciation of Lazarus’s courageous attempt to forge an original identity as a secular Jew, and the dedication with which she carried out her belief in “deed over creed” in her philanthropic work. ‘When the Russian pogroms of the 1880s prompted thousands of Eastern European Jews to seek refuge in America, Lazarus took up their cause with passion and energy, lobbying for better rights and living conditions. Her efforts are even more impressive when contrasted with the anxious suspicion with which the new immigrants were greeted by the established Jewish community (an editorial in the American Hebrew in 1882 warned of “an army of Jewish paupers overspreading this republic and imperilling the blessings of liberty it gives us”». Lazarus fought the prejudice of non-Jews .and Jews alike, though “The New Colossus” contains a less well-known description of the poor, huddled masses as ”the wretched refuse of your teeming shore”.
Alongside her support for Jewish immigration, Emilia Lazarus became one of the first American Zionists; Schor neatly describes her as combining the beliefs of Daniel Deronda with the character of Gwendolen Harleth. A large proportion of Lazarus’s poetry is freighted with her hopes for the Jewish people, and as a result, now sounds archaic; ‘Songs of a Semite”, for example, reads as follows:
Wake, Israel, Wake! Recall to-day
The glorious Maccabean rage,
Oh deem not dead that martial fire,
Say not the mystic flame is spent!
With Moses’ law and David’s lyre,
Your ancient strength remains unbent.
Let but an Ezra rise anew,
To lift the Banner of the Jew!
This is not the first account of Lazarus’s life and work - two other biographies appeared in the 1990s, including one which drew on a collection of recently discovered letters - hut it is a lively addition to the excellent series Jewish Encounters. To claim, as Esther Schor does, that Emma Lazarus invented the role of the American Jewish writer is perhaps the overstate the case. But she was an extraordinary woman who led an unconventional life. She never married - an unpublished poem hints at her ambiguous sexuality - and she died, of Hodgkin’s disease, at the age of thirty-eight. Her vision of America as an inclusive nation lasted longer than even she could have hoped.
America’s First Cultural Jew
David Kaufmann | Fri. Sep 29, 2006
Emma Lazarus has been having a good run recently. Eighteen months ago — some 117 years after her early death from Hodgkin’s disease — John Hollander’s judicious selection of her poetry demonstrated that she was one of the most talented American poets of the 19th century, and far and away the best Jewish one. And now, Esther Schor’s intelligent, passionate and deeply sympathetic literary biography argues that Lazarus is a vitally important — even prophetic — writer, “more of our time than her own.”
In her own time, though, Lazarus enjoyed considerable success. The educated daughter of a wealthy, well-assimilated Sephardic family, she wrote fiction, poetry, translations (most significantly of Heine), polemical essays and plays, not to mention straight journalism. Her early verse, published when she was just 16, elicited the admiring, though somewhat condescending, attention of the aging Ralph Waldo Emerson. Turgenev sent her a mash note from Paris after reading her novel “Alide.” By the time she was in her early 30s, she was publishing in and had been reviewed by the most prominent journals — both Jewish and gentile — of her day. An erudite and socially ambitious woman, she could count among her friends Henry James, Robert Browning and William Morris. She was famous enough for the New York Herald to hail her as “one of New York’s most widely known literary women.”
Despite all this, her reputation came to rest on a throwaway, a sonnet she composed to help raise funds for the Statue of Liberty — and then soon forgot. This poem, “The New Colossus,” is generally remembered for the lines it attributes to the “Mother of Exiles” herself: “Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore….” These sentiments, though noble in all senses — they are both patrician and generous — belong to a style of public poetry that became unfashionable by the end of World War I. Not surprisingly, Lazarus’s stock fell.
In the 1940s and ’50s, her name was kept alive by the “Emmas,” members of the Women’s Division of the Jewish Section of the International Workers Order who underwrote a slim edition of her work. The “Emmas” were probably the only ones who remembered that Lazarus wrote more than “The New Colossus.” They borrowed as their motto her great rallying cry, “We are none of us free if we are not all free.”
Schor wants us to remember where that bracing sentiment — and many others beside — comes from. Unlike Hollander, she is not particularly interested in convincing us of Lazarus’s poetic ability. Although she obviously thinks that Lazarus was a fine poet (she includes some of her work in an appendix), and although she provides some admirable readings of Lazarus’s verse, Schor clearly wants us to see that Lazarus’s achievement goes beyond the turning of a rhyme or the structure of a sonnet. Lazarus’s importance rests on the identity that she was able to fashion from her complex situation as both an American and a Jew.
Lazarus really came into her own in the later 1870s, when she decided to confront the rise of American antisemitism and thus the meaning of her own Judaism.
While she was staunchly opposed to the traditional practices of religion, Lazarus was fiercely proud of her Jewish inheritance. Like many other modern and modernizing Jews of the period, she redefined Judaism by spiritualizing it. She purged it of the rituals of observance and located its essence in “monotheism, purity of morals and brotherly love.” In her articles and in her poetry, she championed a secular, ethical Judaism that she derived from the spirit of Isaiah and Ezekiel. In this way, she could espouse both a strong sense of Jewish particularity and an equally strong commitment to universal justice.
This sense of justice, which she prescribed both for Jews and for America at large (hence her belief that the United States itself should serve as the stepmother of all exiles), was put to the test by the great wave of Russian Jewish immigration that followed the pogroms of 1881. Lazarus wrote about immigrants and worked hard on their behalf. But she was also severely bothered by “the shuffling gait, the ignominious features, the sordid mask of the son of the Ghetto” (as she put it in a prose poem titled “By the Waters of Babylon”). She felt that the traditional constrictions on Jewish life — the “cunningly enmeshed web of Talmud and Kabbala” on the one hand and antisemitic oppression on the other — had deformed the Jewish culture of Eastern Europe. While she argued that the key to reformation lay with “manual labor, artisanal production, and physical exertion,” she was not sure that immigration to the United States would do the trick for the Ostjuden. American society was “utterly at variance with their time-honored and most sacred beliefs.” The wretched refuse would therefore need another place to go. It was necessary to promote Jewish settlement in Palestine.
And promote it she did. The idea of a Jewish homeland was certainly brewing in the decade before Herzl, but it met with considerable resistance. Such resistance never deterred Lazarus. She wrote vigorously about the cause and even helped found a Zionist organization. Its name spoke to both the problem it sought to address and the solution it proposed: the Society for the Colonisation and Improvement of Eastern European Jews.
In this as in so many other things, Lazarus sounds a lot like a yekke. Not for nothing, then, did she keep looking to Heine as a model. A secularized, secularizing commitment to a purely ethical Judaism was pioneered by German Jews, and she shared with them as well a deep, if somewhat ambivalent, identification with both the Jewish people and the nation of her birth. Like them, too, she found the Ostjuden an embarrassment.
Lazarus’s true originality lay elsewhere, in the fact that she was the first American writer willing to stake her claim as a cultural Jew. As Schor points out, this was a courageous and complicated maneuver. By locating the essence of Judaism in its sense of justice, Lazarus was able to assume a role that was both authentically Jewish and recognizably American: that of a prophet. Hers was the admonitory voice of biblical prophecy, sometimes hectoring, occasionally bitter and usually uplifting. It was a voice devoted to the notion that ethical Judaism could serve America’s calling by championing freedom and the cause of the oppressed.
Schor’s understanding of Lazarus as a latter-day prophet — an heir to both the Jewish and Protestant traditions — cannot be overestimated. It provides a context that makes even Lazarus’s more unpalatable works (such as “By the Rivers of Babylon”) seem vital. It also underscores Lazarus’s refreshing intellectual feistiness, her willingness to let her considerable intelligence be her guide.
At times, though, Schor does not seem willing to let Lazarus remain an innovative, vulnerable and apparently fearless 19th-century heroine. She also wants to portray Lazarus as a solitary visionary who foresaw our particular future. This is the Emma who appears in the peroration of the book:
In her struggle to be American and Jewish, she looked to both sides and belonged to neither. She looked behind her saw that none followed…. She saw and spoke the need for a Jewish homeland when that was lunacy; she saw in the blaze of anti-Semitism a coming apocalypse, when others carried blankets to snuff it out…. Her vision of the modern Jew was shocking, in part because it was so simple — a Jew more fully human than any Jews had ever been. She, a secular Sephardic Jewish poet, invented the role of American Jewish writer… Prophetic indeed, she told America that its complexion would change, along with its soul….she remade America in the image of a Jewish calling — a mission to repair the world….she is returning to us.
There is a more than a touch of hazy wishfulness in all this. Lazarus was not a sole voice calling in the wilderness, though she was definitely a lonely one. I am not sure we can say that she actually foresaw the “coming apocalypse” of the Shoah, and I have to confess that I do not understand what is wrong with trying to snuff out antisemitism. While Schor is probably right that Lazarus “invented the role” of the modern Jewish American writer (her first and perhaps most important follower was her sister’s protégé, Mary Antin), it is not at all clear that the modern, secular Jews among us are really more human than any Jews have ever been.
What is more — and this is important — there is a real difference between saying that something should come to pass and asserting that it actually will. Isaiah and the Oracle at Delphi were not doing the same thing, even though we say that they were both engaged in acts of prophecy. Judaism forbids fortunetelling. Lazarus’s work is about a world that could be, not a world that necessarily would be. The risk of ethics lies precisely in the distance between that “could” and that “would.”
So let us leave her to the Gilded Age. Schor demonstrates with clarity and gusto that Lazarusentailed. If she can speak to us now — and thanks to Schor, I believe she can — it is because these questions and contradictions still worry us. Their survival is the surest sign of their importance and their intractability. If Lazarus is of our time, then it is because she belongs so surely to her own.
Kaufmann teaches literature at George Mason University.
September 24, 2006
By Esther Schor
Nextbook/ Schocken, $21.95, 368 pages
REVIEWED BY MERLE RUBIN
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.