This Month In History
July 2015

This Month in NYS History – Emma Lazarus Born – July 22nd, 1849

Emma Lazarus wrote her most famous work, <em>The New Colossus</em>, in 1883.
Emma Lazarus wrote her most famous work, The New Colossus, in 1883.
Emma Lazarus, writer of The New Colossus, was born on July 22nd, 1849 in New York City. She was born into an old American family of Sephardic Jews from Portugal. The iconic lines of Lazarus’ poem “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” are inscribed on a plaque on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.

Lazarus grew up in Greenwich Village on the Lower East Side of New York City. An avid fan of literature, Lazarus started writing poetry came at an early age, and she gained an early fan in fellow writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. Around 1881, Lazarus took up the defense of persecuted Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe and began to empathize with their plight on their arrival to the United States. She viewed America as a place for all immigrants to come and feel safe, believe as they wished and enjoy the freedoms afforded to them by the Constitution.

In 1883, Lazarus wrote her most famous work, The New Colossus, with inspirations from her experience with Jewish immigrants in New York. This sonnet was a direct reference to the famed Colossus of Rhodes, a massive statue that supposedly had existed in Ancient Greece and was one of the original “Seven Wonders of the World.” Lazarus describes the Statue of Liberty as a “Mother of Exiles,” a reference to the Statue being a symbol of immigration and opportunity.

Lazarus wrote the poem for an auction of art and literary works meant to fund the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. The sonnet remains Lazarus’ masterpiece and is a reflection of the United States welcoming in immigrants during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

However, it wasn’t until 1901, 17 years after her death, that the sonnet was rediscovered by her friend who organized an effort to resurrect the lost work. In 1903, the sonnet was officially inscribed on a plaque in the Statue’s pedestal, immortalizing the words of inspiration that Lazarus wrote.

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. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

"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-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"