Women of Valor


Defining Emma Lazarus

Emma Lazarus, 1849 - 1887

No mystery has been more elusive than that of Emma Lazarus' private life. Biographies have been few and far between, due in part to a lack of primary sources. Most biographical works were written in the late 1940's when the hundredth anniversary of Lazarus' birth led to a renewed interest in her life. The myth of her private world is colored as much by these scholars' often unfounded opinions as by any evidence. Writings on Lazarus' love life and her choice to remain unmarried illustrate this confusion.

H.E. Jacob's 1949 biography explained that Lazarus never married because her emotional world was "fixed so firmly on her father ..." Jacob used Lazarus' play The Spagnoletto, which deals with a father's obsessive control over his daughter, as his "proof." On the other hand, Max Baym decided Emma was romantically obsessed with Emerson. "But what was Concord to her?" Baym asked, "It was Emerson and his opinion of her work—it was all!" In 1951, Arthur Zeiger not only repeated both men's ideas, but also took an unpublished manuscript poem, "Assurance," as evidence of Lazarus' "lesbian fantasy."

More recently, Bette Roth Young's 1995 book has suggested that Lazarus and Charles deKay (brother of Emma's friend, Helena deKay Gilder) were lovers. But unlike her predecessors, Young admits the evidence merits only a suggestion. The secrets of Emma Lazarus' private life remain hidden.

  1. For Jacob's argument and quotes, see Heinrich E. Jacob. The World of Emma Lazarus. (New York: Schocken Books, 1949) 28, 70-1.
  2. For Baym's argument and quote, see Max I Baym, "Emma Lazarus and Emerson." Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society 38 (1948): 271-2.
  3. Zeiger's dissertation is quoted in Young 18.
  4. On Lazarus and Charles de Kay, see Young 44-5.
  5. One notable biography missing from this discussion is Eve Merriam's 1957 Emma Lazarus: Woman with a Torch largely because it was not obtainable.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Women of Valor - Emma Lazarus - Defining Emma Lazarus." (Viewed on April 17, 2014) <http://jwa.org/womenofvalor/lazarus/defining-emma-lazarus>.