Had Czar Alexander II not been assassinated by Russian revolutionaries in 1881, the Statue of Liberty might have meant something quite different from what it actually has signified to the world in the eighty years since its dedication. For the Czar’s death at the hands of nihilists, some of whom happened to be Jews, set off a series of violent anti-Semitic riots in Russia; and this in turn jarred a young New York poetess out of a romantically placid existence and moved her to write some lines that have become famous as the message the Goddess radiates abroad.
It is a pity that Emma Lazarus is known to most Americans only as the author of those lines, for she possessed a deeply sensitive talent which she cultivated diligently during her short life. The fourth of six daughters born to a wealthy Jewish financier in New York City, she was her father’s favorite. He lavished upon her every advantage at his command: the best of private tutors, a superbly comfortable home which she rarely left for more than a few hours at a time, an extensive library, connections with New York’s most elegant intellectuals—and she grew up to be a brilliant, brooding young woman who never married, never even had a reported romance despite her romantic nature and her beauty.
In the secluded ambiance of her father’s house, Emma’s poetic gift developed along predictable lines. Encouraged by Ralph Waldo Emerson, to whom she sent her first slim book of poems, published when she was eighteen, she wrote beautifully polished lyrics in a thoughtful, melancholy vein, most of them looking back to ancient times and rich with classical allusions. Today they seem dated, but no more so than those of many of her contemporary Victorians—and it could be easily argued that she was more talented than some who have been better remembered.
But in 1881 Emma Lazarus’ intellectual energies were suddenly revitalized and redirected. The accounts of atrocities against Russian Jews awoke her to a new awareness of her Hebraic heritage, and she threw herself into an intense effort to help the forlorn refugees who soon began to pour into New York. She wrote masterly essays for The Century in which she analyzed “the Jewish problem” against its historical background and sharply pinpointed the essence of anti-Semitism. Her poetry, too, now had a cause: a volume of her verse published in 1882 was called Songs of a Semite . By 1883 she was known as a leading American crusader for ethnic toleration as well as for specific aid to the homeless Jewish immigrants.
It was in that year that she was asked to write a poem on behalf of the fund to build a suitable pedestal for Bartholdi’s colossal statue, Liberty Enlightening the World . Inevitably, thinking of the great figure that was to look out across the Atlantic toward the Old World, she construed the Goddess’ symbolic meaning in her own terms. The statue had originally been intended as a commemoration of Franco-American friendship and of the democratic revolutions of the two countries concerned; but the sonnet Emma Lazarus wrote—which was engraved within the statue’s pedestal after her death—went beyond that. It made the Goddess not only a symbol of world liberty, but an emblem of America’s destiny as a nation of immigrants, a nation whose motto, e pluribus unum, would take on new overtones as successive waves of newcomers were absorbed into American life:
Emma Lazarus died of cancer in 1887, at the age of thirty-eight. The world has forgotten most of her poetry, yet, fittingly, the Goddess in New York Harbor has kept her name alive.