Saturday, April 16, 2011

Lady Liberty

With the recent kerfluffle over the USPS inadvertent use of an image of the Statue of Liberty not from the actual statue in New York Harbor but rather from the replica at the New York New York Hotel, it got me thinking about the statue's history and about the origins of the famous verse inscribed inside the base of the statue.

The New Colossus
By Emma Lazarus, 1883

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "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!"

Who was Emma Lazarus? By what path did she end up penning one of the most famous pieces of American verse, known by millions of people the world over?

Emma Lazarus was an interesting woman.  A Sephardic Jew of Portugese descent, her family had lived in America since colonial times.  Born in 1849, she was a well-known poet, activist and socialist. She worked to improve the lives of immigrants, especially women.  Following her death, many radical women's societies would spring up in order to study and evangelize her writing.
Emma Lazarus
Her poem was offered up to the committee seeking to raise funds for the construction of the pedestal upon which La Liberté éclairant le monde (Liberty Enlightening the World, aka The Statue of Liberty) a colossal work by French sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi.  Although not conceived as a symbol of the immigration movement, it became one as millions of European immigrants passed beneath Lady Liberty on their way to Ellis Island.

Emma Lazarus' poem was read at the dedication ceremony and then promptly forgotten until, in 1903, a close friend Georgina Schuyler succeeded in commemorating the poem and the dedication event with a bronze plaque. 
Commemorative Plaque from 1903
What people may not know is that the inspiration for the statue came from another progressive political thinker, Édouard René Lefèbvre de Laboulaye.  Laboulaye was a participant in the Paris commune of 1870 and the one who conceived of the idea of a gift to the United States on the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. This gift would be in the form of a giant statue depicting Liberty. He convinced his friend, Frédéric Bartholdi to take the commission and create this New Colossus

So there you have it. One of the most iconic pieces of Americana, conceived by a French communist and commemorated by an American socialist.  America is a land of delightfully diverse thoughts and ideas, though you wouldn't know it by watching TV.

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