Emma Lazarus’s Biographer Weighs-In

Statue of Liberty

After the recent Ken Cuccinelli debacle, several outlets are doing a nice job of informing the public about Emma Lazarus and her relationship to American immigration history.  Over at Slate, Rebecca Onion interviews Princeton professor and Lazarus biographer Esther Schor.

The interview reminds us that Lazarus’s poem The New Colossus “has never represented America’s immigration policy.  It’s always been aspirational.”

Here is a taste:

Between the 1930s and now, it somehow went from an interventionist poem, making an argument not everyone agreed with, to something that a lot of people think of fundamentally American. By 1986, you write in your biography, at the centennial celebration of the Statue of Liberty, the poem was uncontroversially included. So, sometime between 1930 and 1986, what happened to change its status?

The poem began as a subversive poem. It’s literally subverting the meaning of the statue that the French intended it to have, which was to honor French republicanism and abolitionism. So Lazarus single-handedly changed what the statue meant.

That subversive poem becomes a bourgeois piety, at a certain point. The Cold War had something to do with it—in essence, the Statue of Liberty becomes a symbol of American liberty, as opposed to fascism. Irving Berlin set the poem to music and used it in “Miss Liberty” in 1949; the Statue of Liberty is also used in Saboteur, a 1942 Hitchcock movie. Then, “The New Colossus” is also taken up in the public schools as a recitation poem—it’s widely anthologized, read at civic gatherings. It’s hard to find a date, but I think the Cold War had a lot to do with it.

And my sense is it’s recovering its subversive power now. 

Yes, I wanted to ask your perspective on the recurrent resurfacings of the poem in our debate over immigration. On the left, the impulse seems to be to correct anti-immigration Trump officials by making reference to this poem’s ideals. Yet, the poem has always been representative of a particular point of view on American immigration—not a consensus position. It seems hard to point this out without undermining the authority of sentiments I basically agree with!

The poem has had its detractors, years before Stephen Miller. Most notably, David Duke, who published a whole chapter on Emma Lazarus in one of his books. Stormfront calls her the “Jewess who tried to ruin the U.S.” There’s an alt-right tradition of aiming right at the poem.

Think about it this way. What other left cause in this country, if we’re going to call immigration a “left” cause, which it is right now … what other cause has its poem? Where’s the health care sonnet, where’s the gerrymandering sonnet? We don’t have these. We happen to have this poem, and granted people have focused on two lines or a line and a half of it, but there it is. It just comes right out. I have this Google alert for “Give me your tired, your poor,” and at midnight I get all the uses of it, in the press. All over the world. I get things from Australia; Aberdeen, Scotland; Singapore… this poem is just on everybody’s lips.

Read the entire interview here.