Standing on a small island in New York harbor on a breezy October day, a small crowd gawked at France’s new gift to America.  Towering above them was the torch, the crown, the robed woman in bronze not yet gone green.  But the top-hatted men dedicating “Liberty Lighting the World” spoke more of France than of freedom.  


President Grover Cleveland exalted the “chosen altar” keeping liberty’s light ”upon the shores of our sister republic in the east. “  No one mentioned immigrants.  None spoke of “huddled masses.”

Months later, a young poet succumbed to Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  Emma Lazarus was 37.  Obituaries hailed her as “an American poet of uncommon talent,” but said nothing of one poem in particular.  Lazarus’ few books were soon shelved.  Buried in them were some lines about some statue.  You know them.  They have become American scripture.  

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “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-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


For most of her short life, Emma Lazarus thought little about immigrants.  Her family had been in America since before the Revolution.  As Sephardic Jews, they had struggled to fit into Manhattan society.  Lazarus’ early poems, published before she was 18, spoke of love, nature, the “noble souls of half a million” fallen in the Civil War.  

Lazarus’ path as a poet was as rocky as most.  Emerson hailed her first collection and offered to make her “my poet,” but he soon soured on her work, leaving her adrift in the world of letters.  She wrote a play, a novel, and translated poems from French and German.  She lived quietly, alone in Manhattan, reading, writing, living for language.  Then in 1881, she began hearing stories, shocking stories.

In Russia, pogroms were tearing through Jewish shtetls.  Women and children being “slaughtered like sheep.”  Families fleeing.  Thousands were pouring into New York’s Lower East Side.  Lazarus began teaching the immigrants, helping them cope with this new ghetto, soon to be the most crowded place on earth.


Lazarus knew of the statue being built in Paris.  She did not think much about it until asked to write a poem to help raise funds for its pedestal.  She hesitated.  She did not write poetry “on order.”

But think, she was told.  “Think of that goddess standing on her pedestal. . . holding her torch out to those Russian refugees.”  A few months later, “The New Colossus” was read at a fund-raiser.  

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. . .


Pedestal funds were raised and the statue was dedicated.  But Lazarus’ poem, though reprinted in newspapers, was forgotten.  Then in 1902, one of Lazarus’ friends campaigned to have “The New Colossus” placed on a bronze plaque, inside the statue.  And there it stayed, with “silent lips.”  While 20 million immigrants streamed past the torch, stirring resentment that culminated in Congress, in 1924, closing “the golden door,” Emma Lazarus poem was barely a footnote in American life.


Fast forward to the Depression, when the struggles of the common American were shaped into art and literature.  As the Statue of Liberty approached its 50th birthday, the New York Times wrote, “If she had a tongue what she could tell.”  In response, a letter to editor quoted Lazarus.  A few years later, Slovenian immigrant Louis Adamic began to champion the sonnet. And during World War II, with liberty up for grabs the statue found her voice. 

A 1942 Alfred Hitchcock movie ended with a woman, standing in the statue’s crown, quoting Lazarus.  By the end of the war, “The New Colossus” was posted outside the statue.  Then in the 1949 musical, “Miss Liberty,” Russian immigrant Irving Berlin set “The New Colossus” to music.


Today, with the statue an American icon, Lazarus’ words are quoted, Tweeted, parodied.  Last month, a federal immigration official rewrote them to include only “the poor who can stand on their own two feet. . .”  Historians pounced.  The debate rages on.  But the words remain, there outside the statue, stamped in bronze. Give me your tired, your poor. . .

“The irony,” said Lazarus’ biographer Esther Schor, “is that the statue goes on speaking, even when the tide turns against immigration — even against immigrants themselves, as they adjust to their American lives.   You can’t think of the statue without hearing the words Emma Lazarus gave her.”

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