On July 22nd, 1849 in New York City a baby girl was born to Moshe Lazarus and Esther Nathan, Sephardic Jews with family origins in Portugal. Baby Emma was the fourth of seven children. Emma’s family had lived in the New York area since colonial times.
Emma was a bright student, studying American and British literature from an early age and mastering the German, French, and Italian languages. As a youth she started writing, with her work attracting the attention of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emma and Emerson remained friends, corresponding until he died in 1882. Emma would herself die only five years later, and the tender age of 38.
Emma Lazarus was a poet of note, best known and still memorialized for a sonnet that spoke America’s youthful story with eloquence.
The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,With conquering limbs astride from land to land;Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall standA mighty woman with a torch, whose flameIs the imprisoned lightning, and her nameMother of Exiles. From her beacon-handGlows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame."Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries sheWith 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!"
This was written in 1883; its lines appear on the bronze plaque affixed to the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, placed there in 1903.
Emma Lazarus died on this day in 1887, most likely of Hodgkin's lymphoma. Considering the current anti-immigrant climate I have to wonder if young Emma would even recognize the America of which she sang.