Born in 1849 in New York, Emma Lazarus is perhaps best known for providing the poem adorning the plaque at the bottom of the Empire State Building, entitled The New Colossus. From a wealthy Jewish background, she was a precocious child who was largely tutored at home. Taking an interest in literature and poetry from early on, she also learned several languages including French and German.
Lazarus was a pioneer of her time, one of the first poets to explore what it meant to be a Jew in America. Barely into her teens, she began writing and translating, supported by her father who arranged to have her first work privately published.
It wasn’t long before Poems and Translations was then published to a fair degree of public attention, perhaps because of her age, gaining favor with many poets of the time, including Emerson who became a friend and helped to mentor Lazarus.
Further collections followed, including Admetus and Other Poems in 1871. Now in her twenties, she became more aware of her Jewish ancestry when she read a book by George Eliot. Daniel Deronda explored the growth of overt Antisemitism after the assassination of Tzar Alexander II in the Victorian era, and how so many immigrants were prompted to flood to America and begin a new life. It led her to write one of her most well-known works in Songs of a Semite and prompted her to help set up a movement for poor Jewish immigrants in New York.
With her fame growing, she wrote a number of works that explored more deeply the history of the Jewish people and she undertook trips to both England and France where she came into contact with some of the literary stalwarts of the time, including Robert Browning.
On her return to American shores, she was tasked with writing a poem that could be auctioned to raise money for the planned construction of the Statue of Liberty. She was reticent but eventually used the opportunity to again write about the lot of immigrants who came to the country, as they would generally sail past the statue on their way to Ellis Island.
The poem did not achieve immediate success and was largely forgotten, playing no role when the statue was unveiled in 1886. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1903 that it was engraved on a bronze plaque and added to the pedestal in memory of Lazarus. The New Colossus has perhaps some of the most famous lines in American literary history, quoted by many over the years.
At the time, Lazarus was beginning to suffer from health problems. In 1884 she became ill with what is believed to be Hodgkin’s lymphoma and was deeply affected when her father passed away a year later. Hoping to bolster her health, she decided to travel abroad to Italy and the rest of Europe. Her illness began to take hold though and she returned to the United States in a poor state, dying in 1887 at the age of just 38.