My love letter to an iconic all-American female

Today I want to share with you the poem The New Colossus, written in 1883 in New York City by Emma Lazarus. Why?

Inauguration celebrations, October 1886.

Because it is a beautiful poem. I invariably get a tear—or two—when I read it, hear it, or recite it. I even memorized it, in 2012, before my family went on a Disney Cruise out of New York City. I had just heard the story of the woman who wrote it, and I wanted to recite it right as the cruise ship passed the Statue of Liberty. This was an ironic joke on me, because the two times we went by it, I was own in my cabin! But I am glad to have learned it; now it will be with me always.

Travelers aboard a steamship can see the Statue of Liberty in the distance.

Because every time this beacon came into view when steamships full of new immigrants entered New York Harbor, the steamships would literally tilt dangerously to one side: Everyone was standing on the same side of the boat to see her. The legend that many of these people wept upon seeing her is a true one. Even in a scene from the best sitcom ever, The Golden Girls, Sophia  Petrillo recalls this moment. “But beyond her was the Statue of Liberty. I remember the first words I shouted out, ‘there she is, Lady Liberty.’ I also remember the second words I shouted out, ‘slow down, you yutz, you’re going past her!'”

Emma Lazarus 1849-1887 (notablebiographies.com)

Because I am so deeply moved by the story of the poet, Emma
Lazarus, who never saw the completed Statue herself, that I am compelled to share it. She wrote and donated the poem to help raise money when there was not enough to finance construction of the pedestal. The only part of the Statue that the public had seen was the arm and torch. In 1887, on her return to New York after a two-year trip to Europe, construction on the towering Statue had been completed. It could easily have been seen from her steamship. But she was too ill with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma to venture out on deck. Emma Lazarus passed the colossal “Mother of Exiles” in all her finished glory, and never saw her. She died two months later, at 38 years old. I will never see the Statue of Liberty in the same way after hearing this story. I hereby honor Emma Lazarus by sharing her words. I love their assertive feminism blended so seamlessly with soft femininity.

The arm and torch of the Statue of Liberty, on display in Madison Square Park from 1876 to 1882 as part of the fundraising efforts for construction of the pedestal.

Because I had eagerly explored ways to incorporate the poem in my novel, set in 1911 New York City. After trying several angles, I’d given up on it. And that was okay, because it made no sense to force it. Earlier this week, I found a way (it’s so obvious to me now!) for the poem to fit into the story.

The (“Old”) Colossus of Rhodes. One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, it also sat in the harbor of a prominent world city. It symbolized superior military prowess.

Because the role of immigrants is still an intensely relevant topic in America. And the words in this poem continue to speak to the plight of immigrants with incomparable poignancy more than 100 years later.

Because I think that not enough people know this poem, even though most are at least familiar with the ubiquitous two or three lines toward the end. My proof? I told my brilliant husband, who knows a lot about history and also knows better than anyone of my fixation with this story, that I was preparing a blog post about The New Colossus, and he said, “Oh, great! … What’s that?”

Because I love New York, love the story of this poem, love the poem itself. Enjoy.

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 teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
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