Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emma Lazarus
And The Jews
An interesting piece in the Jewish Daily Forward comparing the poetry of Emma Lazarus and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson was, of course, one the great American literary lights of the nineteenth century while Emma Lazarus laboring in the same vineyard composed her doggeral piece that mars the Statue of Liberty: ‘Give us your poor, your huddled masses…etc.
There is currently a tremendous campaign going to make us suspend our judgement and believe that Emma Lazarus was a great poet, let alone a mere poet. Nothing will apparently convince her promoters that as poets go Emma is laughable.
It seems that she tried to impose herself on Emerson who was cold to her advances. While tolerant of her imposition, politely not forbidding her attentions, Emerson nevertheless committed an unpardonable sin in Jewish eyes when he neglected to include her poems ‘in his landmark 1874 anthology “Parnassus.”‘ Well, yes, Emma was a Jew and perhaps might have been coddled by Emerson on that ground rather than appear ‘an anti-Semite’ but Emerson was judging poetry on its merits not its religion. Merits. Did Emma and do her promoters really believe there is any comparison between the poetry of Emma Lazarus and that of, oh say, Lord Byron, Walter Scott or Tennyson?
Oh, come now, fellows. A hundred fifty years on the supporters of Emma must surely know the
reason why. It wasn’t because Emma’s poetry lacked merit that she was excluded it was because Emerson was, …are you ready…an anti-Semite.
Still, Lazarus continued to visit Emerson, as an 1876 letter from Ellen Tucker Emerson, the poet’s (Emerson) daughter, reports with patronizing humor, describing Lazarus as a ‘real unconverted Jew (who has no objection to calling herself one, and talked freely about ‘Our Church’ and her Jews!) and hear how the Old Testament sounds to her, I find she has been brought up to keep the Law, and the Feast of the Passover and The Day Of Atonement. The interior view was much more than I could have imagined.
Well, L-rd, first Emma forces herself on the Emersons who were apparently too well bred and polite to just ask her to stay away, but then she starts proselytizing about the moral superiority of ‘her’ Jews over the Emersons’ Church. That’s almost enough to make one an anti-Semite, whatever that is.
Whatever discomfort one might feel in the company of this bumptious Emma Lazarus the only possible reason for feeling revulsion is that one is an…anti-Semite.
A hero of American letters, Emerson once wrote an essay: “That which takes my fancy most in the heroic class, is the good humor and hilarity they exhibit. (His poem) “William Rufus And The Jew” suggests that Emerson’s hilarity was leavened with a decided degree of contempt for the Jewish people.
Well, g-sh, nobody has a right to any degree of contempt. Gee, and I thought Hitler was bad, the Nazis horrible, the Death Camps abominable but, now, I find the Emerson was ten times worse and a hundred times more contemptible.
And why? Because he didn’t like Emma Lazarus’ poetry.
But then, obviously one hundred fifty years later, no one does.