Emma Lazarus's most famous poem gave a voice to the Statue of Liberty, but her remarkable life has remained a mystery until now. She was a woman so far ahead of her time that we are still scrambling to catch up with her-a feminist, a Zionist, and an internationally famous Jewish American writer before thse categories even existed.
Drawing upon a cache of personal letters undiscovered until the 1980, Esther Schor brings this vital woman to life in all her complexity. Born into a wealthy Sephardic family in 1849, Lazarus published her first volume of verse at seventeen and gained entr�e into New York's elite literary circles. Although she once referred to her family as "outlaw" Jews, she felt a deep attachment to Jewish history and peoplehood. Her compassion for the downtrodden Jews of Eastern Europe-refugees whose lives had little in common with her own-helped redefine the meaning of America itself.
In this groundbreaking biography, Schor argues persuasively for Lazarus's place in history as a poet, an activist, and a prophet of the world we all inhabit today-a world that she helped to invent.
Emma Lazarus's reputation rests on one poem, "The New Colossus," affixed to the base of the Statue of Liberty. Lazarus (1849-1887), however, was a much heralded artist in her day, and, as this new entry in the Jewish Encounters series shows, Lazarus was a formidable woman of passion and integrity. Poet Schor (a professor of English at Princeton) reveals Lazarus as a prodigy who briefly became the prot�g� of Ralph Waldo Emerson and later corresponded with Henry James and Robert Browning; a champion of Russian Jewish refugees, despite being a member of the highly assimilated Sephardic aristocracy ; and a Zionist before Zionism existed. In Schor's handling, Lazarus comes across more as a strong-willed, philanthropic woman who could write than as an artist driven to activism. Schor's text is marred by a couple of anachronisms, such as a reference to Google, and her prose can turn purple (she describes the morning of Lazarus's death as "sunless, strung with cloudy pearls"). For all that, while readers may not embrace Lazarus's poetry--it bears all the ponderous, orotund tendencies of its time--they will come to agree with Schor's assessment that Lazarus was a woman we might have liked to know. (Sept. 5)
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September 04, 2006
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