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American Literary History 18.1 (2006) 1-28

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Emma Lazarus and the Golem of Liberty

No poet bears so monumental a relation to Atlantic liberalism as Emma Lazarus, who is known chiefly as the author of the famous lines of "world-wide welcome" inscribed in bronze within the massive pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. Her 1883 sonnet "The New Colossus" is one of the most frequently quoted poems of the nineteenth century:

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 teaming shore—
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me—
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Everyone knows at least a few phrases from the sestet—the part spoken by the statue—because they have become part of the lingua franca of an American integrationist fantasy. This fantasy of an open and welcoming yet coherent and unified nation has long continued to draw currency from Lazarus's poem through selective citation of these lines. They are commonly invoked, for instance, whenever anyone feels that our government is acting inhospitably—thus their frequent citation in contemporary debates over post–9/11 immigration policy. But the assimilation of the ideal of liberty to the discourse of liberal complaint suppresses the strangeness and danger and contradictoriness of that ideal. Lazarus's poem offers to oppose [End Page 1] this suppression, yet it continues to be almost universally underread. Not only is it generally reduced to its last four or five lines, but those lines are themselves abstracted from the remarkable conditions that bring them to voice both within the poem and in relation to its author and her other work. To restore these lines to the sonnet and to resituate the poem in the world of its author is to recognize how comprehensively its reception history has resisted its destabilizing relation to the iconology of liberty.

This essay seeks to uncover and interpret that relation at a time when the national commitment to an ideology of individual liberty is, along with its colossal personification in New York Harbor, perceived to be especially vulnerable to attack. Yet the identification of the Statue of Liberty with the subject of liberty has become harder, rather than easier, to sustain. Widespread concern over the erosion of civil rights by recent legislation ostensibly designed, in the words of James Sensenbrenner, to "secure our liberties" (qtd. in Lichtblau) often gets viewed as somehow at odds with more "patriotic" anxiety for the safety of national icons of freedom. These icons include, most notably, the Statue of Liberty, which the federal government has placed under special protection. The world's most famous monument to national permeability was locked down entirely for almost three years following the 9/11 attacks. While Lazarus's sonnet continued, of course, to circulate independently of its bronzen inscription (placed in the statue's pedestal in 1903), no visitor was able to read that particular inscription until the museum and pedestal areas of the monument were reopened in August 2004 after an expensive security upgrade. The interior of the statue itself remains closed indefinitely.

The Statue of Liberty inspires such restrictive care for many reasons, from its symbolic importance as an appurtenance of national identity to the structure of its interior stairways, which would make swift and safe evacuation virtually impossible. Beyond nationalist fervor and intensified concern for the safety of visitors to the monument, however, the closing attests to anxieties over the longstanding image of the statue as a maternal figure already violated in fantasy. Indeed, the iconology of the Statue of Liberty has always...


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