- Emma Lazarus
In this fifth volume from Shocken and Nextbook's Jewish Encounters series, Esther Schor, a poet and English professor at Princeton, provides a compelling interpretation of the life and work of the greatest American Jewish writer of the nineteenth century. Emma Lazarus is, of course, quite famous for one poem, her Statue of Liberty sonnet. In "The New Colossus," the silent monument tells the world, "Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" (p. 189), and these lines have become a part of the fabric of American identity and mythology. Lazarus's humanitarian work on behalf of immigrants fleeing violence and persecution in Eastern Europe added to this fame, making her a heroic icon who had the courage to remind us, "Until we are all free, none of us is free" (p. 160). Yet her poetry was not much read or studied during the twentieth century, and few people are familiar with the life of this gifted and ambitious but rather private author. In this fascinating and well-written biography, Schor attempts to move us beyond the icon to provide finally "a being, not a poem" (p. xiii).
Schor's project is a challenging one, however. Those who need Lazarus to be a Jewish heroine may not warm as readily to a Lazarus who came from a family both distinguished and scandalous or to a Lazarus who could be angry, demanding, and condescending. "She is a snob," Schor tells us (p. xii). Those who have ignored her poetry or dismissed it as activist, sentimental, bourgeois, or quaint will resist the idea that she is a groundbreaking poet with considerable range, perception, and talent.
An even greater obstacle for the biographer of Lazarus is the lack of primary documents with which to write her life. Until 1980, scholars had only a very small archive of correspondence and "a maudlin memoir by her sister Josephine" (p. xi). Bette Roth Young's important manuscript discoveries in the 1980s, collected in Emma Lazarus in Her World: Life and Letters in the 1990s, transformed the study of Lazarus. Still, many key documents are still lost to us: her large library, her detailed and expressive diary, lots of letters, almost anything about her childhood, and more. Thus, until now, no one had written a decent biography about Lazarus, and, even now, the scarcity of documents can raise questions. How do we know, for instance, that the manuscript book Lazarus composed in 1886 was meant to be her own selection and arrangement of poems into a final "poetic testament" (p. 233)? Why then doesn't the manuscript include some of her finest poems, poems in which she took great pride? Why does it include several interesting though odd translations of works by others? Did Lazarus really intend to use a poem about a sleeping dog [End Page 196] (not mentioned by Schor) to shape her reputation "as an erudite, cosmopolitan lyric poet" (p. 233)? The lack of corroborating documents to support this interpretation of the manuscript book leaves unsettled certain issues about Lazarus's poetry and life.
Still, what Schor has done with the extant biographical materials is remarkable. Using judicious examination of the available evidence (Lazarus's poems and essays, the letters discovered by Young, public documents, and more), Schor constructs a coherent and nuanced narrative life and solves several seeming puzzles. For example, Lazarus's upbringing and some of her opinions make it clear that she enjoyed a life of great privilege and aristocratic opportunity, a life she did not reject. On the other hand, her reading of and writing about political and economic radicals create the impression that Lazarus might have been a much more militant writer and activist. Rather than seeing a conundrum or the need to take up a side, Schor clarifies:
Emma Lazarus was no revolutionary, nor was she a socialist; her misgivings about "communistic" regimes survived her enthusiasm for both Henry George and William Morris [famous socialist writers of the period]. But she was an activist who deeply understood Morris's impatience for change.(p...