American Literature Emma Lazarus
Sharon Oster
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 September 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0234


Emma Lazarus (b. 1849–d. 1887) was born New York City, Esther (Nathan) and Moses Lazarus’s fourth child of seven. Ashkenazic on Lazarus’s side and of mixed Ashkenazic and Sephardic background on Nathan’s, Lazarus’s ancestors founded in the seventeenth century the two oldest synagogues in the United States, Touro synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, and the Sephardic Shearith Israel Synagogue in New York. Moses Lazarus, a prosperous sugar refiner, established his family in fashionable New York City and Newport. Emma was rigorously educated by private tutors, an early foreign language prodigy. Among the secular Sephardic Jewish elite, Lazarus expressed her Jewishness less through religious orthodoxy than commitments to family, community, synagogue membership, and her writing, which reflected her early interest in Jewish history and culture. At seventeen, she published Poems and Translations (1866), primarily original poems, and translations of German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, Friedrich Schiller, Alexandre Dumas, and Victor Hugo. In 1868 Lazarus began a friendship-mentorship with Ralph Waldo Emerson, dedicating her second volume, Admetus and Other Poems (1871), to him, but that suffered after he omitted her work from his anthology, Parnassus (1874). Between 1874 and 1876, Lazarus published a novel Alide (1874), earning praise of Ivan Turgenev, and her first play. From 1876 to 1882, Lazarus shifted toward Jewish subjects, publishing translations of medieval Spanish, Sephardic Hebrew poets; acclaimed translation, Poems and Ballads of Heinrich Heine (1881); and Songs of a Semite (1882) on Jewish themes. She began work with newly arrived Russian Jewish refugees in 1882, and then published prose essays addressing modern antisemitism, Jewish immigration, and proto-Zionism, earning her respect and acclaim in both the mainstream and Jewish press. In her lifetime, American literary life shifted from New England to her native New York City, yet she cultivated friendships among New England’s literary elite (including daughters of both Emerson and Hawthorne). Non-Jewish friends apparently regarded her as “a Jewess,” but she maintained genuine friendships with the likes of Richard and Helena deKay Gilder, Henry and William James, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Robert Browning, and William Morris. In 1883, Lazarus wrote her most famous poem, “The New Colossus,” for a Statue of Liberty Pedestal Fund benefit auction. Traveling to England, she met prominent writers and artists, raised money for Jewish refugees, and advocated for a Jewish state. After showing signs of illness in 1884, and her father’s death in 1885, Lazarus returned to New York in 1887 and died of Hodgkin’s disease at age thirty-eight, perhaps the most critically acclaimed poet and Jewish writer in the United States. “The New Colossus,” installed on a plaque inside the Statue of Liberty pedestal in 1903, single-handedly transformed the statue’s meaning from a figure of enlightened democracy into one of “world-wide welcome,” solidifying Lazarus’s enduring legacy.

Overviews and Biographies

The most comprehensive, engaging treatment of Lazarus’s life and work is in Schor 2006. Eiselein 2002, an introduction to Lazarus 1889, provides a richly detailed, concise scholarly overview for general readers, as does Kessner 1987 in a more celebratory manner, while Young 1995 provides a revisionary view of Lazarus, including previously unpublished letters. Merriam 1998 provides a general overview along with selections of poetry and prose. The overview in Angoff 1979 focuses on Lazarus’s activism. Vogel 1980 offers a brief, and by no means complete introduction to Lazarus’s biography. Jacob 1949 and Zeiger 1951 provide early studies that seem to undervalue the poet’s work. Lazarus 1889 offers an early influential treatment of Lazarus’s sister, that also undervalues the intellectual originality of Lazarus’s work and starts the fallacious “conversion” narrative about Lazarus’s Jewishness. In an edition that separates out Lazarus’s “Jewish” poems, this publication also undermines Lazarus’s most important literary-historical achievement, inventing herself as the American Jewish writer. Lichtenstein and Schor 2021 offers an excellent, up-to-date online biographical resource.

  • Angoff, Charles. Emma Lazarus: Poet, Jewish Activist, Pioneer Zionist. New York: Jewish Historical Society of New York, 1979.

    This biography provides an overview of Lazarus’s poetry and political activism. Includes a commemorative lecture by Angoff on the poem “The New Colossus,” presented at the Statue of Liberty monument in 1978.

  • Eiselein, Gregory. “Introduction.” In Emma Lazarus: Selected Poems and Other Writings. Edited by Gregory Eiselein, 15–32. Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2002.

    Eiselein figures Lazarus as a complex, sophisticated, and controversial figure, ahead of her time, who brought a cross-cultural perspective to her work, and became a modern “symbol of Jewish and American identity, Jewish-American identity in which neither was lost within the other” (p. 19). See Lazarus 2002 under Anthologies and Editions.

  • Jacob, Heinrich E. The World of Emma Lazarus. New York: Schocken, 1949.

    An early misleading biography that emphasizes Lazarus’s political writing and activist work on behalf of Jewish refugees but reads her life through the observation that she was overly attached to her father. Among those critics who see Lazarus undergoing a “conversion” to her Jewish identity when she encountered Russian Jewish immigrants firsthand at Ward’s Island in 1882.

  • Kessner, Carole S. “From Parnassus to Mount Zion: The Journey of Emma Lazarus, on the Centenary of Her Death.” Jewish Book Annual 44 (1987): 141–162.

    Commemorating the centenary of Lazarus’s death, gives on overview of Lazarus’s life and career, emphasizing her friendships with R. W. Emerson, Ivan Turgenev, Henry James; turn toward Jewish subjects in her writing; the influence of George Eliot; her social justice activism and late travels in Europe. Kessner argues that in her Jewish-themed poems, Lazarus “at last found her own voice” (p. 156).

  • Lazarus, Josephine. “Introduction: Biographical Sketch of Emma Lazarus.” In Poems of Emma Lazarus. Vol. 1. Edited by Mary Lazarus and Annie Lazarus, 1–39. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1889.

    A preface to the first posthumous two-volume edition of Lazarus’s poems, copyrighted by sisters Mary and Annie, this memoir by Lazarus’s third sister, Josephine, portrays Emma Lazarus as a feminine and decorous “poetess,” and misrepresents the intellectual power and originality of her legacy. More importantly, it started the fallacious “conversion” narrative about Lazarus’s Jewishness, and by separating her “Jewish” poems from the rest of her work, undermined her central achievement of manifesting the public role of the American Jewish writer. See Lazarus 1889 under Anthologies and Editions.

  • Lichtenstein, Diane, and Esther Schor. “Emma Lazarus.” In The Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. Brookline, MA: Jewish Women’s Archive, 2021.

    Written by Lichtenstein and updated by Schor, this encyclopedia essay published by the Jewish Women’s Archive offers a brief but updated biographical resource addressing Lazarus’s family, education, early literary work, Jewish themes in her work, “The New Colossus,” later life and legacy, and a bibliography.

  • Merriam, Eve. Emma Lazarus Rediscovered: A Biography, with Selections from Her Writings. New York: Biblio Press, 1998.

    Early biography that includes selections of Lazarus’s poems and translations, essays, and excerpts of correspondence with Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emphasizes Lazarus’s connection to Jewish heritage, activism on behalf of oppressed Jews, relationships with contemporary writers and philosophers, and consciousness of her “triple role as an American, as a woman, as a Jew” (back matter). Features an extended introduction by Lazarus scholar and expert, Morris Schappes. Reprint of Emma Lazarus, Woman with a Torch (New York: Citadel Press, 1956).

  • Schor, Esther. Emma Lazarus. New York: Schocken, 2006.

    Outstanding full-length biography based on personal letters discovered in 1980, published by Bette Roth. See Young 1995 under Letters. As neither diary nor records of Lazarus’s early childhood survive, Schor shows Lazarus as more than a poem: a powerful, modern, fearless woman, who “lived the double life of American Jewry without apology,” “invented the role of American Jewish writer,” and advocated for a Jewish homeland when that was considered a wild idea (pp. 259, 260).

  • Vogel, Dan. Emma Lazarus. Boston: Twayne, 1980.

    This brief biography acknowledges Lazarus’s poetic and social accomplishments, education, and correspondence, but through a condescending lens. Vogel calls Lazarus an “emotional” poet, “sentimental,” and a “privileged New York spinster” (p. 21). Argues for Lazarus’s gradual awakening of Jewish consciousness yet sees the arrival of Russian Jewish refugees to New York in 1881 as provoking a moment of “conversion” in Lazarus in 1882 from a “world of dreams” to “the actual world around her” (p. 16).

  • Young, Bette Roth. Emma Lazarus in Her World: Life and Letters. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1995.

    This landmark biographical volume transformed the story about Lazarus, including selections of one-hundred-odd letters discovered in 1980, between Lazarus and Helena deKay Gilder, Henry James, and Scribner’s and Century editor Richard Watson Gilder. No shy “spinster,” Lazarus is shown a woman of strong beliefs, gifted, cultured, and socially and intellectually worldly. Young also addresses the ambivalences and contradictions in Lazarus’s writings on Jewish issues in the 1880s. See Young 1995 under Letters.

  • Zeiger, Arthur. “Emma Lazarus: A Critical Study.” PhD diss., New York University, 1951.

    Zeiger’s dissertation represents thorough research, but regards Lazarus as an unimaginative, largely imitative, minor poet, bound to the sources upon which she relied, rarely “transcending” when translating them. Among critics who see her interest in Jewishness result from a “conversion” after encountering Russian Jewish immigrants at Ward’s Island in 1882.

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