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This sketch of Emma Lazarus was made in about 1880, when she was about 30 years old. The poet lived (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Emma Lazarus, Poet of the Huddled Masses

by Jacki Lyden
Oct 21, 2006 (All Things Considered)

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In her poem The New Colossus, Emma Lazarus created what stood for years as an American credo. You know the words: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..."

The words of the poem were engraved on a bronze plaque hung in the Statue of Liberty museum 20 years after her death. To many, the verse expressed the governing U.S. attitude toward immigrants: welcome. But today, a new debate over immigration is dominating the political debate.

So it's a good time to take a new look at the writer. Esther Schor, poet and professor of English at Princeton University, offers that chance with a new biography: Emma Lazarus.

Lazarus was a Sephardic Jew, a descendant of people expelled from Spain centuries before. She often wrote about the "Jewish plight" in her poetry. She was an early Jewish nationalist — advocating for a Jewish state in Palestine as early as the 1880s.

Near the end of her life she became an advocate for disenfranchised immigrants, who were arriving by the thousands in the late 1800s.

She wrote The New Colossus at age 34. Less than five years later she was dead of cancer, never knowing the impact her poem had on the nation.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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