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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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10 Terrific Facts About Stephen King
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As if being one of the world's most successful and prolific writers wasn't already reason enough to celebrate, Stephen King is ringing in his birthday as the toast of Hollywood. As It continues to break box office records, we're digging into the horror master's past. Here are 10 things you might not have known about Stephen King, who turns 70 years old today.

1. STEPHEN KING AND HIS WIFE, TABITHA, OWN A RADIO STATION.

Stephen and Tabitha King own Zone Radio, a company that serves to head their three radio stations in Maine. One of them, WKIT, is a classic rock station that goes by the tagline "Stephen King's Rock Station."

2. HE'S A HARDCORE RED SOX FAN.

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Not only did he write a story about the Boston Red Sox—The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (who was a former Red Sox pitcher)—he also had a cameo in the Jimmy Fallon/Drew Barrymore movie Fever Pitch, which is about a crazed Sox fan. He plays himself and throws out the first pitch at a game.

In 2004, King and Stewart O'Nan, another novelist, chronicled their reactions to the season that finally brought the World Series title back to Beantown. It's appropriately titled Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season.

3. HE WAS HIT BY A CAR, THEN BOUGHT THE CAR THAT HIT HIM.

You probably remember that King was hit by a van not far from his summer home in Maine in 1999. The incident left King with a collapsed lung, multiple fractures to his hip and leg, and a gash to the head. Afterward, King and his lawyer bought the van for $1500 with King announcing that, "Yes, we've got the van, and I'm going to take a sledgehammer and beat it!"

4. AS A KID, HIS FRIEND WAS STRUCK AND KILLED BY A TRAIN.

King's brain seems to be able to create chilling stories at such an amazing clip, yet he's seen his fair share of horror in real life. In addition to the aforementioned car accident, when King was just a kid his friend was struck and killed by a train (a plot line that made it into his story "The Body," which was adapted into Stand By Me). While it would be easy to assume that this incident informed much of King's writing, the author claims to have no memory of the event:

"According to Mom, I had gone off to play at a neighbor’s house—a house that was near a railroad line. About an hour after I left I came back (she said), as white as a ghost. I would not speak for the rest of the day; I would not tell her why I’d not waited to be picked up or phoned that I wanted to come home; I would not tell her why my chum’s mom hadn’t walked me back but had allowed me to come alone.

"It turned out that the kid I had been playing with had been run over by a freight train while playing on or crossing the tracks (years later, my mother told me they had picked up the pieces in a wicker basket). My mom never knew if I had been near him when it happened, if it had occurred before I even arrived, or if I had wandered away after it happened. Perhaps she had her own ideas on the subject. But as I’ve said, I have no memory of the incident at all; only of having been told about it some years after the fact."

5. HE WROTE A MUSICAL WITH JOHN MELLENCAMP.

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King, John Mellencamp, and T Bone Burnett collaborated on a musical, Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, which made its debut in 2012. The story is based on a house that Mellencamp bought in Indiana that came complete with a ghost story. Legend has it that three siblings were messing around in the woods and one of the brothers accidentally got shot. The surviving brother and sister jumped in the car to go get help, and in their panic, swerved off the road right into a tree and were killed instantly. Of course, the three now haunt the woods by Mellencamp's house.

6. HE PLAYED IN A BAND WITH OTHER SUCCESSFUL AUTHORS.

King played rhythm guitar for a band made up of successful writers called The Rock Bottom Remainders. From 1992 to 2012, the band "toured" about once a year. In addition to King, Amy Tan, Dave Barry, Mitch Albom, Barbara Kingsolver, Matt Groening and Ridley Pearson were just some of its other members.

7. HE'S A NATIVE MAINER.

A photo of Stephen King's home in Bangor, Maine.
By Julia Ess - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

King writes about Maine a lot because he knows and loves The Pine Tree State: he was born there, grew up there, and still lives there (in Bangor). Castle Rock, Derry, and Jerusalem's Lot—the fictional towns he has written about in his books—are just products of King's imagination, but he can tell you exactly where in the state they would be if they were real.

8. HE HAS BATTLED DRUG AND ALCOHOL PROBLEMS.

Throughout much of the 1980s, King struggled with drug and alcohol abuse. In discussing this time, he admitted that, "There's one novel, Cujo, that I barely remember writing at all. I don't say that with pride or shame, only with a vague sense of sorrow and loss. I like that book. I wish I could remember enjoying the good parts as I put them down on the page."

It came to a head when his family members staged an intervention and confronted him with drug paraphernalia they had collected from his trash can. It was the eye-opener King needed; he got help and has been sober ever since.

9. THERE WAS A RUMOR THAT HE WROTE A LOST TIE-IN NOVEL.

King was an avid Lost fan and sometimes wrote about the show in his Entertainment Weekly column, "The Pop of King." The admiration was mutual. Lost's writers mentioned that King was a major influence in their work. There was a lot of speculation that he was the man behind Bad Twin, a Lost tie-in mystery, but he debunked that rumor.

10. HE IS SURROUNDED BY WRITERS.

A photo of Stephen King's son, author Joe Hill
Joe Hill
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Stephen isn't the only writer in the King family: His wife, Tabitha King, has published several novels. Joe, their oldest son, followed in his dad's footsteps and is a bestselling horror writer (he writes under the pen name Joe Hill). Youngest child Owen has written a collection of short stories and one novella and he and his dad co-wrote Sleeping Beauties, which will be released later this month (Owen also married a writer). Naomi, the only King daughter, is a minister and gay activist.

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10 Things You Might Not Know About J.D. Salinger
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For the past few decades, if any artist has been celebrated for a slim body of work and subsequently disappeared from public view, they’ve invited comparison to Jerome David (J.D.) Salinger. The author (1919-2010) published only one novel in his lifetime, 1951’s The Catcher in the Rye—but what a novel it was. A bildungsroman (coming of age) story about an aimless young man named Holden Caulfield on a mission to find himself after being expelled from a private school, The Catcher in the Rye ushered in a new era of philosophical literature, becoming a staple of classrooms across the country.

A new film about Salinger, Danny Strong's Rebel in the Rye, is once again stirring interest in the reclusive artist. If you’re a little light on Salinger trivia, check out some facts about his war experiences, his disappointing fling with Hollywood, and one curious choice of beverage.

1. HE WORKED ON THE CATCHER IN THE RYE WHILE FIGHTING IN WORLD WAR II.

Salinger was a restless student, attending New York University, Ursinus College, and Columbia University in succession. While taking night classes at the latter, he met Whit Burnett, a professor who also edited Story magazine. Sensing Salinger’s talent for language, Burnett encouraged him to pursue his fiction. When World War II broke out, Salinger was drafted into the Army. During his service from 1942 to 1944, he worked on chapters for what would later become The Catcher in the Rye, keeping pages on his person even when marching into battle.

2. HE HAD A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN.

Following his service, Salinger experienced what would later be labeled post-traumatic stress disorder: He was hospitalized after suffering a nervous breakdown in Nuremburg in 1945 after seeing some very bloody battles on D-Day and in Luxembourg. Writing to Ernest Hemingway, whom he had met while the latter was a war correspondent for Collier’s, he said his despondent state had been constant and he sought out help “before it got out of hand.”

3. HE REFUSED TO BE REWRITTEN.

Settling back in New York after the war, Salinger continued to write, contributing short stories to The New Yorker and other outlets before finishing The Catcher in the Rye. In literary circles, his name was already becoming known for insisting that editors not change a single word of his writing. When publisher Harcourt Brace agreed to publish The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger broke away from the deal after they insisted on rewrites. The untouched book was eventually released by Little, Brown and Company.

4. THE NEW YORKER DECLINED TO PRINT A CATCHER IN THE RYE EXCERPT.

A supply of Catcher in the Rye copies by author J.D. Salinger
Getty Images

Despite having published stories in The New Yorker previously, Salinger was dismayed to discover that the magazine wasn’t very supportive of his novel debut. Getting an advance copy of the book in the hopes they would run an excerpt, editors said the book's characters were “unbelievable” and declined to run any of it.

5. HE DID GIVE ONE INTERVIEW ... TO A HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT.

Early on, it became apparent that Salinger wasn’t going to embrace whatever celebrity The Catcher in the Rye brought to his doorstep. He insisted that Little, Brown not run an author’s photo on the book’s dust jacket and turned down any opportunities to publicize it—with one exception. After moving to New Hampshire, Salinger agreed to give an interview to a local high school paper, The Claremont Daily Eagle. Salinger was later dismayed to find out an editor wound up putting it on the front page of the local paper. Annoyed and feeling betrayed, he put up a six-foot, six-inch tall fence around his property, further walling himself off from prying eyes.

6. HE DID WIND UP SELLING A MOVIE IDEA.

Although his most celebrated work has been kept offscreen, Salinger did have a brief courtship with Hollywood. In 1948, producer Darryl Zanuck purchased the rights to one of his short stories, “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut.” Released as My Foolish Heart in 1949, it earned actress Susan Hayward an Oscar nomination (plus a second one for Best Original Song). Salinger reportedly hated it.

7. HE SUED HIS BIOGRAPHER.

Choosing a difficult subject to profile, author Ian Hamilton insisted on pursuing a biography of Salinger in the 1980s. Salinger was so peeved he sued Hamilton to prevent him from using excerpts of unpublished letters. A Supreme Court ruling gave him a victory, barring Hamilton from using the passages. Hamilton later wrote a book, 1988's In Search of J.D. Salinger, an account of his own legal dealings with Salinger.

8. HE PROBABLY DRANK HIS OWN PEE.

By Time Inc., illustration by Robert Vickrey. Time Magazine Archive - National Portrait Gallery Collection, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Salinger’s reclusive habits made him easy prey for a litany of rumors, but some of his more intriguing habits were disclosed by his daughter, Margaret, in a memoir that described her father as speaking in tongues and occasionally sipping his own urine. That practice, called urophagia, is said to have health benefits, although no reputable studies have been able to demonstrate as much.

9. HE ALWAYS LOATHED THE IDEA OF A CATCHER IN THE RYE MOVIE.

With its persistent interior monologues, The Catcher in the Rye might be almost unfilmable—but that hasn’t stopped directors as revered as Billy Wilder and Steven Spielberg from trying. Throughout his life, Salinger famously rebuffed any attempt to purchase the rights to make a film from his book, but did leave open a small possibility that it could possibly happen after he died. “It pleasures me to no end, though,” he once wrote, “to know that I won’t have to see the results of the transaction.” (The Salinger estate has yet to disclose whether they would seek to prevent an adaptation.)

10. A CARTOONIST WON A RESIDENCY AT HIS HOUSE.

In late 2016, the Cornish Center for Cartoon Studies Residency Fellowship accepted applications for cartoonists who wished to live in a one-bedroom apartment above the garage of Salinger’s former residence in Cornish, New Hampshire. The fellowship was granted so the winner could have a place to focus and produce “exceptional work.” The CCS repeated the offer this year, with a guest due to move in on October 16. Harry Bliss, a cartoonist for The New Yorker, is the current owner of the property.

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