Emma’s Poem: The Voice of the Statue of Liberty – Linda Glaser and Claire A. Nivola, Sandpiper of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010
This is a book about Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) and the “mother of exiles.” No, not the aspiring immigrant mothers, forced for various reasons to leave their homelands, whom we have all been watching with something close to despair, as their children are taken from them, and from their fathers, in a cruel and calculated spectacle. Linda Glaser and Claire Nivola’s book describes the activism and the creative process of Lazarus, the daughter of an affluent and assimilated Jewish family, as she struggled to give a voice to the statue in New York Harbor, welcoming masses of disadvantaged and frightened newcomers, many Jewish like herself. The poem which Lazarus wrote, later set to music by the great composer Irving Berlin, became a permanent part of the best of American culture, the part which does not turn away desperate people, but welcomes them and invites them to contribute to that culture in myriad ways.
The endpapers of the book contain a facsimile of the manuscript of “The New Colossus,” and the text encourages readers to understand how and why Lazarus wrote her poem. Emma’s childhood is characterized by plenty: “a large comfortable house,” “plenty of books,” “plenty of good food,” and a loving family. Her life is supportive and rich, but also something of a trap for Emma:
“Even when Emma was all grown up,
and by then a well-known writer,
she still only knew people
who had plenty of everything.”
The simplicity of Glaser’s language is both poetic and informational, in the best way. She helps young readers to understand how advantages can bring their own limitations, and also how Emma’s empathy and sensitivity helped her to accomplish her goal. Seeing the poor on Ward’s Island, Emma noted their sadness and poverty. “They were the poorest people/Emma had ever seen./Her heart hurt to see them.” Emma’s sorrow leads her to action and she becomes involved in the lives of those who need her help.
Glaser presents the composition of the poem as a combination of thought and feeling. Lazarus determines to imagine what the Lady in the Harbor, whom she termed the Mother of Exiles,” might say if she could speak, and the resulting poem has become synonymous with the great wave of immigration which brought so many people of such diverse backgrounds to our country .The restrictive immigration laws of 1921, 1924, and 1929 dimmed the light represented by statue and poem, and suspicion, even hatred, of immigrants has continued to be part of American life.
Nivola is a brilliant artist (I have blogged about her here and here and here), whose detailed and richly colored paintings capture the time period with realism and beauty. Lazarus sits at her ornate desk in a beautifully appointed room of Persian carpet and tall potted plants. Her long bright purple dress calls the viewer’s eye to the center of the picture, where she begins to write her poem. The same poet, this time dressed in somber black, helps an elderly man learn to read from a bright green covered book. Other immigrants stand in the background, including a young mother, her back to the reader, holding a sleeping baby as she talks to an elderly relative. Nivola’s pictures also show the construction of the statue, and bring the story into the present with pictures of multicultural schoolchildren learning the poem:
“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!”
Published eight years ago, Emma’s Poem, like Lazarus’ work itself, will apparently never be out-of-date and will always be worth reading with our children. Glaser’s careful narrative and Nivola’s luminous pictures frame the history of Emma Lazarus and the Statue of Liberty with unforgettable words and images.