An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Emma Lazarus

Aug 18, 2018 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

In 1883 Lazarus wrote the poem that greets new immigrants to America till this very day.

1) Professor Elder, like many Americans I have been fortunate enough to visit the Statue of Liberty and indeed, have walked all the way to the top. But there is also a plaque with some words by Emma Lazarus: “Give us your poor, your tired, your huddled masses.” Can you provide “the rest of the story” and tell us about how these famous words came to be?

Although accounts differ on when he came up with the idea, most historians believe that the Frenchman Edourard Laboulaye deserves credit for suggesting the construction of a statue in the United States to commemorate the country’s commitment to the concept of freedom. He publicly announced the proposal in September of 1875. At that point in time, he and the French sculptor Frederic Bartholdi began to discuss the design for the statue. They soon decided to use as a model a female figure from American popular culture, commonly known as Liberty.

Finally satisfied with the design, in 1882 Laboulaye began an effort to raise funds for the project. As part of this campaign, organizers asked the American poet Emma Lazarus to write a sonnet that they could then auction off, and put the proceeds in the general fund. Although initially reluctant, Lazarus finally agreed, and in 1883 she produced a poem titled “The New Colossus.” This work contains the phrase quoted above.

2) When were the words placed on the Statue and who commissioned them?

As previously noted, the words came from a poem written in 1883 by Emma Lazarus as part of an effort to fund the construction of what became known as the Statue of Liberty. That monument had its official dedication in 1886. During the next fifteen years, a number of plaques were placed on and around the monument. Years later, friends of Emma Lazarus suggested that a plaque with the words of her poem inscribed on it would make an appropriate addition to that collection.

By that time, the United States War Department managed the Statue of Liberty, and Secretary of War Elihu Root decided to honor the request to place a plaque with her words on it on the monument’s pedestal. It remained there until 1986, when it went on display in the Statue of Liberty’s museum.

3) What other contributions has Emma Lazarus made?

Although born to Jewish parents, Emma Lazarus seemed to have little interest in her faith while growing up. But because of pogroms conducted in Eastern Europe against Jewish people, she became increasingly interested in the circumstances involving other Jews around the world as she grew older. As a result of this persecution, she began to take action. To aid Jewish immigrants moving to the United States gain practical work skills, in 1881 she helped found the Hebrew Technical Institute.

Two years later, she proved instrumental in starting an organization that helped Jews who faced persecution in Eastern Europe to relocate. In this sense, she became an advocate of the political movement that would become known as Zionism years before Theodore Herzl popularized the phrase. 

4) Did she do any other writing? Were there any other contributions?

Emma Lazarus had become a successful writer long before she wrote “The New Colossus” in 1883. In 1867, her first book of poems and translations appeared, and she followed that with a book of poetry in 1871. Turning to prose, she published a book on the romance between Johann Goethe and Friederike Brion in 1874. In 1876, she tried her hand at writing a tragedy. By the time the fund-raising committee asked her to contribute a poem for the proposed Statue of Liberty, then, she had attained a well-deserved fame as a writer.

5) A little background on this famous woman, who still impacts Americans (and others entering the U.S. via Ellis Island)?

Emma Lazarus was born on July 22, 1849, in New York City. Her father had made a fortune in the sugar refining business. This wealth allowed him to educate his daughter with private tutors. From an early age, displayed an interest in poetry, apparently writing her first set of verses at the age of 11. She continued to write throughout her lifetime, producing what many regard as her greatest work in 1887. Unfortunately, she passed away in November of that year. Two years after her death, the executors of her estate oversaw the production of a volume containing her unpublished works.

At that point in time, she might have slipped into obscurity. After the plaque bearing the words of “The New Colossus” was placed on the Statue of Liberty, however, her fame grew exponentially. As a result, the National Women’s History Project honored her with a month in 1992, and the National Women’s Hall of Fame inducted her in 2009. Her name will therefore undoubtedly live on in American history.

6) What have I neglected to ask?

Today, the Statue of Liberty and the words of Emma Lazarus seem almost interchangeable to most Americans. It is therefore interesting to remember that had it not been for the friends of Emma Lazarus making their suggestion for a plaque, Americans might never have known of her inspiring words. How many other Americans would be famous today if only someone had publicized their work as her friends did?

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