Emma Lazarus

Emma Lazarus (1849-1887), American poet, is best known as a spokesperson for the Jewish people. Her faith in America as a haven for all the downtrodden peoples of the world is expressed in her poem in scribed on the Statue of Liberty.

Emma Lazarus was born in New York City on July 22, 1849. Her wealthy, cultured parents provided comforts and devotion, beginning with private tutors and summers at the seashore. At the age of 11 she began writing impassioned lyrics on traditional romantic themes and at 17 privately printed her first collection. Poems and Translations (public edition 1867) was followed by Admetus and Other Poems (1871). These poems so pleased Ralph Waldo Emerson that he invited Lazarus to visit him, thereby beginning a correspondence that lasted throughout her life.

Lazarus's work began appearing regularly in Lippincott's Magazine and Scribner's Monthly. In 1874 she published her first prose, Alide: An Episode of Goethe's Life. Her five-act drama, The Spagnoletto (1876), focuses on Italy in 1655, but as playwright she had more fervor than talent. Poetry was her true métier. Her translation of Heinrich Heine's Poems and Ballads (1881) was considered the best version of Heine in English at the time.

The turning point in Lazarus's life was the outbreak of violent anti-Semitism in Russia and Germany during the early 1880s. When a journalist defended these pogroms in the Century Magazine, Lazarus wrote the fervent reply "Russian Christianity versus Modern Judaism" in the next issue. From this moment she began a private crusade for her people. Her verse took on a new note of urgency, a call to Zionism, particularly in Songs of a Semite (1882) and in her play of 12th-century Jewish life, The Dance to Death. More importantly, she began to organize relief efforts for the thousands of immigrants crowding into Ward's Island and to write a series of articles for the magazine American Hebrew.

In 1883 Lazarus sailed for England, where she was received with great enthusiasm for her work in behalf of Jewish immigrants. She made so many friends among the Zionists that she returned in 1885, spending the next 2 years traveling in England, France, and Italy. Cancer cut her career short. She returned to New York City shortly before her death on Nov. 19, 1887. Lazarus's sonnet "The New Colossus" was engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor before the dedication in 1886; it was a fitting commemoration of her faith in American ideals.


Further Reading on Emma Lazarus

The Poems of Emma Lazarus (2 vols., 1889), the standard text, includes a biographical sketch by her sister. More recent is Emma Lazarus: Selections from Her Poetry and Prose, edited by Morris U. Schappes (1944; 3d ed. 1967). See also H. E. Jacob, The World of Emma Lazarus (1949), and Eve Merriam, Emma Lazarus: Woman with a Torch (1956).

Additional Biography Sources

Angoff, Charles, Emma Lazarus, poet, Jewish activist, pioneer Zionist, New York: Jewish Historical Society of New York, 1979.

Young, Bette Roth, Emma Lazarus in her world: life and letters, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1995.