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The Story Behind the Poem on the Statue of Liberty

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Today, the lines engraved in bronze on the base of the Statue of Liberty are almost as well-known as the statue itself. But the young woman who wrote “The New Colossus” and its famous verses—“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”—isn’t a household name, and not many know that the poem wasn’t originally destined for the statue itself.

“A POET OF RARE ORIGINAL POWER”

The New York Historical Society via Wikimedia // Public Domain

Born on July 22, 1849 to Esther and Moses Lazarus, Emma was the middle child in a group of seven. Her father—a rich sugar refiner who ranked among the founders of New York City’s Knickerbocker Club, an elite social group to which multiple Vanderbilts and Franklin Roosevelt would also later belong—was descended from some of the first Sephardic Jewish immigrants to land in the New World. (One of Emma’s great-great-uncles, Moses Seixas, is known for his powerful correspondence with George Washington on the topic of religious liberty.)

It was during her childhood in New York and Rhode Island that Lazarus fell in love with poetry, and in 1866, when she was 17, her father paid to have a collection of her original poems—plus some German language pieces that she’d translated into English—privately printed. The next year, the book was commercially published as Poems and Translations by Emma Lazarus Written Between the Ages of Fourteen and Seventeen.

In 1868, Lazarus met—and impressed—one of her literary heroes, Ralph Waldo Emerson (then the most significant voice in America’s transcendentalism movement). The pair began corresponding, and Lazarus would come to regard Emerson as a good friend and mentor. “Mr. Emerson,” she once observed, “treats me with an almost fatherly affection.” In 1871, Lazarus published her second book, Admetus and Other Poems; she dedicated the titular poem “To My Friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson.”

By that point, Lazarus’s work was starting to garner international acclaim. In its review of Admetus and Other Poems, the Illustrated London News raved that “Miss Lazarus … must be hailed by impartial literary criticism as a poet of rare original power.” Similar praise was showered upon later works, including the 1874 novel Alide: An Episode of Goethe’s Life and poems published in various periodicals. By decade’s end, Lazarus had emerged as a well-known and highly respected writer on both sides of the Atlantic. Before long, she’d use her newfound fame to champion the cause of the tired, poor, and "huddled masses" who desperately needed sanctuary.

RIOTS IN RUSSIA

On March 13, 1881, Czar Alexander II was assassinated in the streets of St. Petersburg when a team of revolutionaries calling themselves the Narodnaya Volya (“People’s Will”) tossed a bomb at him. Since the Narodnaya Volya included at least one Jewish member, the czar’s death launched an epidemic of violent anti-Semitism throughout Russia and modern Ukraine. The situation got even worse in 1882, when Czar Alexander III canceled a huge number of land deeds held by Jews and forced half a million of them to relocate; he also forbade Jewish businessmen from trading on Sundays or Christian holidays, an edict that had immense financial consequences.

These measures and others like them kicked off a mass exodus of Russian Jews, with the vast majority heading to the United States. By 1914, around 1.5 million of these refugees had arrived in the U.S. [PDF].

Lazarus was extremely moved by their plight. “[Until] this cloud passes,” the poet said, “I have no thought, no passion, no desire, save for my own people.” In the 1880s, she dedicated a number of published essays and poems to Russia’s Jews and Jewish immigrants. When she wasn’t supporting them with her pen, she personally assisted any refugees she could find. At a Manhattan branch of the philanthropic Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society, Lazarus gave free English lessons to newly arrived families. Elsewhere, she’d visit those whom immigration officials had quartered in overstuffed—and highly unsanitary—barracks on Ward’s Island.

While the poet was keeping herself busy in New York, a gift for the United States was being constructed more than 3600 miles away.

“THE GODDESS OF LIBERTY STANDING ON HER PEDESTAL”

In the 1860s, France had decided to celebrate her long and (mostly) peaceful relationship with the U.S. by sending an impressive new statue to the American people. Designed by sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, the tribute was to take the form of a giant, crowned woman clad in robes and hoisting a torch. Both nations agreed that the French would finance the statue itself while America secured the funding for its base, which would be built on Bedloe’s Island (now known as Liberty Island).

Part of the money the U.S. required was raised during a raffle at the Bartholdi Pedestal Fund Art Loan Exhibition. Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and other legendary artists donated works. Lazarus, too, was asked if she’d create something for the fundraiser. At first, she declined. “[I] could not possibly write verses to order,” she explained. However, a chairwoman by the name of Constance Cary Harrison convinced Lazarus to change her mind.

“Think of the goddess of liberty,” Harrison wrote in a letter to Lazarus, “standing on her pedestal yonder in the bay and holding the torch out to those refugees you are so fond of visiting at Ward’s Island.” The plea worked: Lazarus agreed to put a poem together. Two days later, she submitted a 105-word sonnet called “The New Colossus.”

When auction day came, Lazarus's poem sold for $1500 (about $37,000 today). After that, it was published as part of a souvenir literary portfolio that Harrison distributed. It had a number of fans, including poet James Russell Lowell, who told Lazarus “I liked your sonnet about the statue much better than I like the statue itself … your sonnet gives its subject its raison d’être which it wanted before quite as much as it wanted a pedestal.” But due to the sonnet’s very limited release, “The New Colossus” didn't attract a mainstream audience—at least, not at first. Unfortunately, Lazarus wouldn't live to see her poem get its due.

REDISCOVERING A MASTERPIECE

The Statue of Liberty herself finally arrived in New York Harbor on June 17, 1885. At the dedication ceremony over a year later, “The New Colossus” was not recited; in fact, the immigration issue was barely mentioned in any of the addresses given that day. At the time, the statue was seen more squarely as a symbol of the friendship between France and America, particularly as allies in the American Revolution; it was also seen as an affirmation of republican ideals and a celebration of the end of slavery. The explicit connection to immigrants, in the minds of the general public, came only later—in large part thanks to Lazarus's words.

Lazarus had spent that fall in Paris, and by the time she returned to New York the next year, she’d contracted what eventually became a terminal illness—suspected to be lymphoma. She died on November 19, 1887, at just 38. When she died, it looked like her poem might be little remembered. In its obituary for Lazarus, The New York Times neglected to reference or acknowledge the now-famous sonnet.

With Lazarus's death, it seemed that "The New Colossus" would fade into obscurity. But it didn't, thanks to the efforts of philanthropist and art aficionado Georgina Schuyler—one of Lazarus’s closest friends, and, as it happened, a direct descendant of Alexander Hamilton. In 1901, Schuyler started lobbying to have “The New Colossus” engraved onto a bronze plaque and affixed to Lady Liberty’s base as a tribute to her friend. Two years later, she got her wish. The sonnet was subsequently rediscovered during the 1930s by those pushing for the U.S. to welcome Jewish refugees then trying to flee Hitler.

As “The New Colossus” rose in popularity, so too did the woman who had penned it. In 1944, an organization called the Emma Lazarus Federation of Jewish Women’s Clubs was established. A progressive, social justice-oriented coalition, its activist members took to celebrating the poet’s birthday every year on Liberty Island. Since then, Lazarus has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and her best-known poem has been frequently cited in American debates over immigration.

Today, Lady Liberty and “The New Colossus” are joined at the hip, and we're more likely to remember the statue as a welcome to immigrants than as a tribute to the French-American relationship. To quote biographer Esther Schor, “You can’t think of the statue without hearing the words Emma Lazarus gave her.”

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Tracing Vladimir Nabokov's 1941 Cross-Country Road Trip, One Butterfly at a Time
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Vladimir Nabokov is most famous as a writer, but the Russian scribe was also an amateur—yet surprisingly accomplished—lepidopterist. Nabokov first began collecting butterflies as a child, and after moving to the U.S. in 1940 he began volunteering in the Lepidoptera collections at the American Museum of Natural History.

The following year, the author took a cross-country road trip, driving 4000 miles from Pennsylvania to California. Along the way, he stopped at kitschy roadside motels, which provided atmospheric fodder for his 1955 novel Lolita. Nabokov also collected hundreds of butterfly samples at these rest stops, most of which he ended up donating to the AMNH.

Nabokov would go on to publish multiple scientific papers on lepidoptery—including the definitive scholarly study of the genus Lycaeides, or the “blues”—and produce perhaps thousands of delicate butterfly drawings. Multiple butterfly species were also named after him, including Nabokov’s wood nymph.

In the AMNH’s 360-degree video below, you can trace the author's 1941 cross-country road trip state-by-state, see some of the specimens he collected, and learn how museum curators are using his westward journey to better understand things like species distribution and migration patterns.

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11 Popular Quotes Commonly Misattributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald
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F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a lot of famous lines, from musings on failure in Tender is the Night to “so we beat on, boats against the current” from The Great Gatsby. Yet even with a seemingly never-ending well of words and beautiful quotations, many popular idioms and phrases are wrongly attributed to the famous Jazz Age author. Here are 11 popular phrases that are often misattributed to Fitzgerald. (You may need to update your Pinterest boards.)

1. “WRITE DRUNK, EDIT SOBER.”

This quote is often attributed to either Fitzgerald or his contemporary, Ernest Hemingway, who died in 1961. There is no evidence in the collected works of either writer to support that attribution; the idea was first associated with Fitzgerald in a 1996 Associated Press story, and later in Stephen Fry’s memoir More Fool Me. In actuality, humorist Peter De Vries coined an early version of the phrase in a 1964 novel titled Reuben, Reuben.

2. “FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH: IT’S NEVER TOO LATE OR, IN MY CASE, TOO EARLY TO BE WHOEVER YOU WANT TO BE.”

It’s easy to see where the mistake could be made regarding this quote: Fitzgerald wrote the short story “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” in 1922 for Collier's Magazine, and it was adapted into a movie of the same name, directed by David Fincher and starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, in 2008. Eric Roth wrote the screenplay, in which that quotation appears.

3. “OUR LIVES ARE DEFINED BY OPPORTUNITIES, EVEN THE ONES WE MISS.”

This is a similar case to the previous quotation; this quote is attributed to Benjamin Button’s character in the film adaptation. It’s found in the script, but not in the original short story.

4. “YOU’LL UNDERSTAND WHY STORMS ARE NAMED AFTER PEOPLE.”

There is no evidence that Fitzgerald penned this line in any of his known works. In this Pinterest pin, it is attributed to his novel The Beautiful and Damned. However, nothing like that appears in the book; additionally, according to the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Association, although there were a few storms named after saints, and an Australian meteorologist was giving storms names in the 19th century, the practice didn’t become widespread until after 1941. Fitzgerald died in 1940.

5. “A SENTIMENTAL PERSON THINKS THINGS WILL LAST. A ROMANTIC PERSON HAS A DESPERATE CONFIDENCE THAT THEY WON’T.”

This exact quote does not appear in Fitzgerald’s work—though a version of it does, in his 1920 novel This Side of Paradise:

“No, I’m romantic—a sentimental person thinks things will last—a romantic person hopes against hope that they won’t. Sentiment is emotional.” The incorrect version is widely circulated and requoted.

6. “IT’S A FUNNY THING ABOUT COMING HOME. NOTHING CHANGES. EVERYTHING LOOKS THE SAME, FEELS THE SAME, EVEN SMELLS THE SAME. YOU REALIZE WHAT’S CHANGED IS YOU.”

This quote also appears in the 2008 The Curious Case of Benjamin Button script, but not in the original short story.

7. “GREAT BOOKS WRITE THEMSELVES; ONLY BAD BOOKS HAVE TO BE WRITTEN.”

There is no evidence of this quote in any of Fitzgerald’s writings; it mostly seems to circulate on websites like qotd.org, quotefancy.com and azquotes.com with no clarification as to where it originated.

8. “SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL, BUT NOT LIKE THOSE GIRLS IN THE MAGAZINES. SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL FOR THE WAY SHE THOUGHT. SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL FOR THE SPARKLE IN HER EYES WHEN SHE TALKED ABOUT SOMETHING SHE LOVED. SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL FOR HER ABILITY TO MAKE OTHER PEOPLE SMILE, EVEN IF SHE WAS SAD. NO, SHE WASN’T BEAUTIFUL FOR SOMETHING AS TEMPORARY AS HER LOOKS. SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL, DEEP DOWN TO HER SOUL.”

This quote may have originated in a memoir/advice book published in 2011 by Natalie Newman titled Butterflies and Bullshit, where it appears in its entirety. It was attributed to Fitzgerald in a January 2015 Thought Catalog article, and was quoted as written by an unknown source in Hello, Beauty Full: Seeing Yourself as God Sees You by Elisa Morgan, published in September 2015. However, there’s no evidence that Fitzgerald said or wrote anything like it.

9. “AND IN THE END, WE WERE ALL JUST HUMANS, DRUNK ON THE IDEA THAT LOVE, ONLY LOVE, COULD HEAL OUR BROKENNESS.”

Christopher Poindexter, the successful Instagram poet, wrote this as part of a cycle of poems called “the blooming of madness” in 2013. After a Twitter account called @SirJayGatsby tweeted the phrase with no attribution, it went viral as being attributed to Fitzgerald. Poindexter has addressed its origin on several occasions.

10. “YOU NEED CHAOS IN YOUR SOUL TO GIVE BIRTH TO A DANCING STAR.”

This poetic phrase is actually derived from the work of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who died in 1900, just four years after Fitzgerald was born in 1896. In his book Thus Spake ZarathustraNietzsche wrote the phrase, “One must have chaos within to enable one to give birth to a dancing star.” Over time, it’s been truncated and modernized into the currently popular version, which was included in the 2009 book You Majored in What?: Designing Your Path from College to Career by Katharine Brooks.

11. “FOR THE GIRLS WITH MESSY HAIR AND THIRSTY HEARTS.”

This quote is the dedication in Jodi Lynn Anderson’s book Tiger Lily, a reimagining of the classic story of Peter Pan. While it is often attributed to Anderson, many Tumblr pages and online posts cite Fitzgerald as its author.

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