Emma Lazarus dies at age 38
When Emma Lazarus died on November 19, 1887 at the age of 38, the obituary published in the New York Times referred to her as “an American Poet of Uncommon talent,” but did not mention her poem, “The New Colossus,” which today is indelibly associated with The Statue of Liberty.
One of the first successful Jewish American authors, Lazarus was part of the late-19th-century New York literary elite, and was celebrated in her day as an important American poet. In her later years, she wrote bold, powerful poetry and essays protesting the rise of antisemitism and arguing for Russian immigrants’ rights. She called on Jews to unite and create a homeland in Palestine before the title Zionist had even been coined. She is best known today for her poem, “The New Colossus,” which was written in 1883 as part of the effort to raise money for a pedestal to the Statue of Liberty. France was donating the statue to the United States, but Americans had to raise the funds for the pedestal.
Her untimely death, probably from cancer, was mourned in both the Jewish and broader communities. It was only, however, after Lazarus’s friend Georgina Schuyler installed a bronze memorial tablet inside the entrance to the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in 1903, inscribed with the lines from “The New Colossus,” including
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,”
that Lazarus’s memory became forever associated with her powerful vision of America as a symbol of hope for the down-trodden.
Sources: www.350th.org/exhibit01/index.html; New York Times, November 20, 1887; May 6, 1903; Esther Schor, Emma Lazarus (Schocken, 2006).