People who recognize the name Emma Lazarus usually do so only because they remember her poem, “The New Colossus,” which is inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Their acquaintance with her is only one poem deep, or, as her biographer Esther Schor puts it, “Everyone knows her and everyone doesn’t know her.”
And even if they don’t recall her name, they can often recite a few words from her poem, “The New Colossus,” in particular: “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-tost to me,/I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
As it happens, Schor, a professor in Princeton University’s English department and its Judaic Studies program who recently published a biography titled “Emma Lazarus,” wasn’t particularly interested in Lazarus until a publisher suggested that she read Lazarus’s letters. These letters convinced Schor of Lazarus’s merit as a subject of investigation. “They were enthralling and rich,” she says. “I found her to be a remarkable, endlessly multifaceted figure, with great wit, so I was sold.”
Schor will speak about her new book, “Emma Lazarus,” on Sunday, March 4, 7:30 p.m., at the Jewish Center, 435 Nassau Street. For more information, call 609-921-0100.
As Schor ferreted out the life experiences of this fourth-generation American from a large Sephardic (Spanish, Southern European, or North African) Jewish family, her research took her far beyond the letters. Following out every lead, she looked up every person mentioned in the letters in periodicals like the New York Times. She read contemporary journals as well as the Jewish press and the mainstream literary magazines where Lazarus was published and reviewed. Schor also read American Jewish history, trying to understand the milieu that gave rise to Lazarus, her parents, and her grandparents.
The first document Schor produced was a detailed chronology, but that was just a starting point. “I couldn’t narrate a chronology, so I had to shape her story, figuring out what to emphasize and drawing threads through her whole life,” she says. “It was complicated; she lived so many lives at once.”
As much as Schor approaches Lazarus as a scholar, there is also a personal element. Schor has always been a poet as well as a musician, a pianist. “I was always interested in song and lyric forms,” she says. “The sound of words has always been important to me.”
Schor shared her love of poetry with her mother, Sandra Schor, who was a poet, a fiction writer, and a teacher of composition and creative writing at Queens College. She published one novel, titled “The Great Letter E,” but died at the age of 58. Schor made an effort to publish more of her mother’s work posthumously, but when that didn’t work, she developed a website showcasing her mother’s work — a compendium of her poems, short stories, essays, photos, and even audio tapes.
When thinking about her goal in writing “Emma Lazarus,” it’s not a surprise that Schor was particularly interested in Lazarus’s poetry. Trained as a literary critic and also a published poet, Schor admits, “I would like to have discussed every poem that interested me.” But alas a biography is neither a poetry anthology nor literary criticism, so she had to cut a lot in her final draft. She had to invoke a criterion where she could only discuss a poem “if it helped tell the story of her life.”
Schor believes Lazarus to be one of the great 19th-century American poets. “I write in poetic forms, metric forms, and am in some awe of her craft,” says Schor. “I think her best poems are superb.” Lazarus was a gifted dramatist and lyricist, who produced moving dramatic monologues and beautiful sonnets.
Schor is particularly impressed by the lengths to which Lazarus would go to start a poem — she would proactively look for something to stimulate and inspire her. “She was opportunistic,” says Schor. “She would find an incident and see an opening for herself and dramatize, lyricize, or explore it in her poems.”
Lazarus also knew German, Italian, and French. She translated Heine from German and translated Spanish Hebrew poetry, first from German translations and later from Hebrew after she had learned that language.
Schor explored the interaction of different aspects of Lazarus’s identity: poet and social activist, American and Jew. Referring to her multiple loyalties, Schor says, “You can’t think of them separately. To talk about a complicated person is not to reduce her to a coherent statement but to show that even the contradictions express how rich her experience was.”
Although Lazarus was not a religious Jew, she was always interested in Jewish history and in anti-Semitism, which was rearing its head in Europe and in America during her adulthood. When in 1877 the New York banker Joseph Seligman was refused lodgings at the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga because of his religion, Lazarus decided to stand with her coreligionists. “In the late 1870s it would have been a simple matter for Emma Lazarus to ignore these chilly currents entirely,” writes Schor. “Instead, she chose the moment when many American Jews minimized, sidestepped, or finessed their identity to declare herself as a Jew.”
Lazarus was bold in putting forth her own identity. “She took risks in terms of the places she published essays and poems,” says Schor, “taking issues that might be thought to be Jewish issues into the mainstream, into the public eye.” For example, she challenged the American public by writing about how anti-Semitism deformed Jews, and she developed a vision of a Jew that was different from the stereotypes of Orthodox Jews, “creatures of the study house,” as she dubbed them.
The modern Jews she envisioned would be undeformed by anti-Semitism, allowed to live a normal life, in the world — embodied, enlightened, and progressive. “Lazarus was making it up as she went along,” observes Schor, “trying to find models in Jewish history of this Jew.” First she focused on Jewish military figures, but “had to find a way of conveying their vitality without the militarism.”
Later, during the refugee crisis of 1882, after the harsh May Laws began to dismantle the civil rights of Jews in Russia, she started to focus on Jewish workers and laborers and their capacity to labor.
She was also aware of the nascent, pre-Herzl Zionist movement, which she eventually supported wholeheartedly. She had read early Zionist writers, and through her uncle, who had been the United States ambassador to Romania, she was aware of the Romanian colonies in Palestine.
Lazarus came to Zionism reluctantly, writing about it during the refugee crisis but calling it repatriation, not Zionism. “Over a period of weeks you can see her changing her mind,” says Schor. She moved from a belief that Jews would always be welcome in four countries — the United States, Britain, Germany, and France — to a commitment to the need for a Jewish homeland. She changed her mind in response to the resistance and paranoia expressed by her fellow Jews when she pled with them to help the immigrants.
As a result of her stand, she was ridiculed on the left and right. Traditional Jews thought her Zionism was messianic and irresponsible. Reform Jews — then in the process of preparing the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 that denied the need for a Jewish state — felt that Zionism would hinder the assimilation of American Jews. In the mainstream press, says Schor, Lazarus was ridiculed as fantasist.
Looking at Emma Lazarus in the context of American history and literature, Schor believes she was important in a number of ways, “because she lived both for art and for social justice.”
For American Jews, says Schor, “Lazarus reminds us of how much we take for granted and how rich our Jewish options are. She didn’t have those options; she had to make her own path without institutions to support her.”
For Jewish American writers, Lazarus made inroads into the stereotype that Jewish American writers are a group of male novelists who came from Ashkenazi (northern and eastern European and Russian) immigrant backgrounds. “Here is a Sephardic woman poet of the previous century who was the first public Jewish writer,” says Schor, adding that Lazarus embodies the idea “that Jewish writing could enter American letters at a high point, with great erudition, craft, and sophistication, but with great passion and polemical drive.”
For Americans, Lazarus modeled the notion of “someone who acted locally and thought globally.” Although this is now a cliche, says Schor, “her work in the refugee crisis, which she felt disappointed about, spurred her to expand her vision rather than withdraw. She had been making demands on Jews to repair the world, and now she begins to demand of Americans that they repair the whole world, and start with the immigrants who are coming to America.”
Schor grew up on Long Island. Her father was a biochemist and businessman who worked at Forest Laboratories. She majored in music and English at Yale University, then took a couple years off “to get away from school.” She lived in England for that period and worked in publishing, but returned to Yale and received her doctorate in English in 1985. Her dissertation was on the elegies of the romantic poets Shelley, Wordsworth, Emerson, and Whitman.
Despite having produced some heavy academic tomes, Schor also likes to write for nonscholarly audiences. “I like to have readers who are just readers for the pleasure,” she says. Although she has written articles and criticism in the popular press, “Emma Lazarus” is her first full book for a nonscholarly audience, and she feels like it has been a success: “I find that Emma Lazarus really matters to people when they learn about her, what obstacles she faced, and what dilemmas she had to work through.”
Schor’s book will move her readers beyond a passing acquaintance with Lazarus’s name to a deep appreciation of her life — her ardent friendships, her vibrant writing life, her engagement with the greats of her era, and her visionary realism. As Schor writes in the closing words of her introduction, “Here, at last, is Emma Lazarus, a being, not a poem. Here is a woman I would like you to know.”
“Emma Lazarus” Book Event, Sunday, March 4, 7:30 p.m. Princeton Jewish Center, 435 Nassau Street, Princeton. Princeton University professor Esther Schor speaks on her new book. 609-921-2782.