Mother of Who? Not Them. Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus,” and the Reality of 19th Century Immigration

by Elisabeth Graham

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“Emigrant Arrival at Constitution Wharf, Boston, from Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, October 31, 1857” – This wood engraving on paper perfectly captures the mixed sentiments towards immigrant peoples at this time period. At first glance, these immigrants could seem violent and angry. They are drawn with distorted, dark features . However, taking a closer look, it becomes apparent that this is a family being reunited after a long period of time. This reveals the combination of admiration and fear felt towards immigrant peoples at this time.

When asked to write a poem for the installation Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus replied that she didn’t write “to order” (Mettler). Yet out of her begrudging attitude came one of the most celebrated and quoted American poems of all time: “The New Colossus.” By examining “The New Colossus” against actual immigration policy and American attitudes towards immigration as well as the poem’s poetic form, it becomes apparent that the emerging American cultural voice is rife with discourse and contradiction.

While “The New Colossus” is an American poem, it does not have its roots in any American literary tradition; Lazarus builds upon traditional European form and content to craft this seminal American poem. Using the Petrarchan sonnet form (categorized by the rhyme scheme “abba abba cdcdcd”) Lazarus is playing upon a poetic tradition that can be traced all the way back to the 14th century. To place modern subject matter in a classic form is to question the temporality of the monument. This is most prominent in the last 6 lines of the poem, particularly these 3 lines: 

‘Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!’ cries she
With silent lips. ‘Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free’

This line of the poem specifically places Lady Liberty in a time beyond the classical era while still calling back to it. Furthermore, the subject matter Lazarus has chosen works to build a new American voice while still holding onto classic texts. Lazarus asserts that this new colossus is different from the Greek giants of yore; she gives this colossus the following title:

By attributing maternal and feminine characteristics to this monument, Lazarus feminizes an otherwise masculine concept of a colossus. The choice to place these contrasting ideals in conversation with one another reveals another way that the American literary tradition begins with a sense of cultural insecurity. Unsure of how to create a new American identity, writers like Lazarus instead choose to fall back on classical material and show the ways that new literature builds upon and changes the medium.

However, it is not just the form that informs the tone of this poem; the content juxtaposed with its social context also contributes to a richer understanding of Lazarus’ text.

First, it is integral to understand Lazarus’ own social position as an upper-class, Jewish-American woman in the late 19th Century. In his article, “Emma Lazarus and the Golem of Liberty,” Max Cavitch identifies Lazarus as a Zionist, revealing the contradiction of Lazarus’ poem acting as a call to welcome refugees and the “tired, poor, huddled masses.” While the Statue of Liberty is meant to welcome citizens to America, Lazarus believed that there should be a separate space where Jewish citizens could live freely. Cavitch also writes, “Incidences of anti-Semitism were already on the rise in the US, and many assimilated American Jews of Sephardic and German descent feared the new visibility their eastern European cousins would presumably confer upon them” (Cavitch 9-10). This fear that Cavitch highlights is in direct conflict with the message Lazarus is sending in her poem. While Lazarus may not have subscribed to this fear of the Jewish immigrant, it is important to consider this as part of the debate surrounding the monument at the time.

On a similar level, not all immigrants were welcome on America’s shorelines; Lazarus welcomes the “wretched refuse” of other countries in her poem, but American immigration policy made it possible to turn away people with disabilities. Just one year before Lazarus wrote “The New Colossus,” the Act of 1882 barred those considered to be a “lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge” (Baynton 33). This first piece of immigration law reveals the myriad ways that xenophobia has become a cornerstone for American attitudes on immigration policy. Douglas Baynton writes that “visibly different people as well as those whose ethnic appearance was abnormal to the inspectors were more likely to be set apart for close examination, and therefore more likely to have other problems discovered and to be excluded” (Baynton 37). This is a far cry from Lazarus’ description of the tired, poor, and huddled masses being allowed into the golden door of America. Picturing these people coming to America and hoping for new beginnings in a new world only to be turned away from the get-go is a heart breaking inconsistency in the American cannon.

This begs the question: was the Statue of Liberty truly the mother of exiles, or was she merely an empty promise to those on the brink of being exiled once more? Emma Lazarus no doubt hoped for a better world for the newcomers to America, but the realities of the time are riddled with a much different story.


Baynton, Douglass C. “Defectives in the Land: Disability and American Immigration Policy, 1882-1924.” Journal of American Ethnic History 24, No. 3 (2005). pp. 31-44

Cavitch, Max. “Emma Lazarus and the Golem of Liberty.” American Literary History 18, no. 1 (2006). pp. 1-28

Homer, Winslow. “Emigrant Arrival at Constitution Wharf, Boston, from Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, October 31, 1857.” Wood engraving on paper. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Accessed November 7, 2017. 

Lazarus, Emma. “The New Colossus.” (1883).

Mettler, Katie. “‘Give me your tired, your poor’: The story of poet and refugee advocate Emma Lazarus.” Washington Post. Last modified February 1, 2017.



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