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Thursday, January 05, 2012
Emma Lazarus: ‘She Wrote A Nation’s Welcome’

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You might know the name Emma Lazarus from the following lines of poetry that adorn the Statue of Liberty:

“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!”

But at 92nd Street Y, we know her as a former English language teacher. Learn more about 92Y’s history in this great photographic timeline we’ve put together.

Turns out that Lazarus taught English to Russian immigrants at 92Y’s downtown branch in 1883 – the same year that she penned the famous sonnet “The New Colossus” – the very words that serve as Lady Liberty’s voice. That’s one small detail—and one of the few details of her life – that you won’t find in the smashing review from The New York Times earlier this week, of the Emma Lazarus exhibit now on view at (Lower Manhattan’s) Museum of Jewish Heritage

Even if Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” had not transformed the gargantuan Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor from an aggressive monument — “Liberty Enlightening the World” — into a welcoming “Mother of Exiles”; even if she had not provided that crowned goddess with a humane voice that still resonates (“Give me your tired, your poor”); even if she had not asserted a powerful connection between liberty and opportunity, the exhibition “Emma Lazarus: Poet of Exiles” at the Museum of Jewish Heritage demonstrates that there would still be reasons to value her life and work.

If you haven’t read the review yet, you must. In it, you’ll learn, among other things, that her poetry “was impressive enough for the 65-year-old Ralph Waldo Emerson to welcome an association with this young poet. (“I should like to be appointed your professor,” he wrote to her, “you being required to attend the whole term”); and that Walt Whitman was a fan of her work.

Speaking of impressive poetry, you might also enjoy browsing the Virtual Poetry Center of 92Y. There you’ll find archival recordings from Kurt Vonnegut, Saul Bellow, Adrienne Rich and more.

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