March 21, 2007: Perspective
the biographer saw
By Esther Schor
Esther Schor, a poet and professor of English at Princeton, is the author of The Hills of Holland: Poems and Bearing the Dead: The British Culture of Mourning from the Enlightenment to Victoria. Her new book, Emma Lazarus (Nextbook/Schocken), won the 2006 National Jewish Book Award in American Jewish Studies.
It was the kind of discovery most biographers only dream of, and it was not mine. In July 1980, the historian Bette Roth Young traveled from Ohio to Lenox, Mass., in pursuit of the letters of the American poet and Jewish nationalist, Emma Lazarus (1849–1887). Young had come to see Rosamond Gilder, the daughter of Lazarus’ closest friends. Gilder, an eminent theater critic then approaching 90, led Young to a tall wooden cupboard and emptied its contents: a trove of 100-odd letters sent by Lazarus (and a few sent by her sisters) to Gilder’s mother, the artist Helena deKay Gilder. Sublimely trusting, Rosamond Gilder told Young that the only photocopy machine open on a summer Saturday was at the post office; why not take them over and copy them? Three hundred nickels and 15 years later, these letters and others appeared in Young’s landmark volume, Emma Lazarus in Her World: Life and Letters.
These meticulously edited letters, placing Emma Lazarus in her moment as never before, supplied a novice biographer with an irresistible subject. They showed me an alert, witty woman, hugely ambitious and scandalously smart, devouring the heady pleasures of the Gilded Age: music, theater, art, poetry, novels, politics, history. I followed her into the parlors of blue bloods and onto the back porches of mountain men such as the naturalist John Burroughs. I found in Lazarus both a snob and a champion of the oppressed. With women, her attachments were ardent and sustained; with men, alternately tenuous and imperious. As a poet, I found it invigorating — and occasionally mortifying — to follow the vicissitudes of her writing life, from the depths of profundity into the shoals of preciousness and self-doubt. Through her letters, I stalked her from New York to London, where, traveling abroad for the first time at 33, she took high society — Jewish and otherwise — by storm. She returned to Europe two years later, in the aftermath of the refugee crisis of 1881–82, when thousands of Russian Jews fleeing pogroms had arrived in New York. Throughout the crisis, she had made the refugees’ case to wealthy American Jews, helping the refugees to obtain job training and education, giving generously of her own fortune. Disappointed in the response to her pleas, she had advocated for “repatriation of the Jews” — in other words, a Jewish state in Palestine. Fifteen years before the First Zionist Congress, both traditional and Reform Jews denounced her; non-Jews simply thought her a dreamer. All but one of her obituaries passed over her Zionism in silence; it was simply an embarrassment to her memory.
But Emma Lazarus became famous for her other, more enduring response to the refugee crisis. Instead of withdrawing her appeal for help — an appeal to Jews on behalf of other Jews — she broadened it, asking the American nation to provide succor for refugees worldwide. In 1883 she was asked to contribute a poem to raise money for a pedestal to support a new statue, “Liberty Enlightening the World,” a gift from the French people to the citizens of the United States. Her sonnet, “The New Colossus,” transformed an idol of enlightenment into an icon of acceptance, guidance, and welcome. Three years later, when the statue was finally dedicated, the sonnet was ignored; indeed, its power would not be fully reckoned until the 1930s, when pro-immigrationists began to use it as an anthem for their cause.
oon after I began to write, I told a biographer friend that having Lazarus’ edited letters in hand probably had saved me five years of labor. “Yes, and she died so young,” he said, grinning deviously; “Big plus!” On the contrary, writing the story of her early death left me bereft, and not only when I wrote the first draft. Revising my account
of her demise in drafts B, C, D, and E, I wept each time. It wasn’t simply that her death at 38 from Hodgkin’s disease was slow and agonizing; it was unbearable to see her lose her eyesight, then her mobility, and eventually surrender her composure and dignity to pain. But I also felt her anguish at leaving so many lives unfinished: her life as a poet, critic, and dramatist; as an advocate, activist, and philanthropist. Her life as daughter, sister, and friend. Her life as an unobservant Jew and champion of the Jewish people; as what we now call, almost without thinking, a “secular Jew.”
Perhaps all biographers sense that their subjects take some secrets to the grave. But when a versatile, active subject dies young, there is an added problem: What direction was the life to take? What choices among her pursuits and causes would her life have demanded? Would she have continued to integrate writing and advocacy, as she did during the refugee crisis? A subject like Lazarus, whose childhood leaves no record in the archives, raises other questions: What kind of child was she — mischievous? Compliant? Competitive and eager for praise? Was she, as I suspect, her father’s favorite among his seven children? What kind of Jewish observance did one find at the Lazarus home on 16th Street? What did her mother’s life — and sudden death at 55 — mean to her? It goes without saying that Emma Lazarus never glossed her spinsterhood for me. Her letters — sometimes self-mocking, sometimes sharply satirical — make frequent reference to being past 30 and unmarried, yet no serious suitors are ever mentioned. By including in her “deathbed” collection of poems a frank sonnet of sexual desire for a woman, she may have given over one secret; by writing it as a dream vision and leaving it undated and undedicated, she may have kept another.
There were moments when I begrudged her these secrets. Sometimes I pictured her in the parlor of her house on 57th Street, bent over the grate, igniting a bundle of letters. But my resentment lessened as I began to discover, in archives in New York, Cincinnati, Washington, and Indiana, secrets kept not from me, but from her. I came to know things she never knew. In 1876, Emma Lazarus apparently told Gilder that she had been enraptured with George Eliot’s new novel, Daniel Deronda; she later wrote that it had opened her eyes to the Zionist cause. But Gilder noted in a letter to her husband that she was “disgusted” with Daniel’s decision to marry the Jew Mirah Cohen; with Lazarus, it seems, she masked her disgust. She shared it instead with her oldest friend, the Western writer Mary (Molly) Hallock Foote, who replied that Deronda had “narrowed” himself in “his devotion to the Chosen People.” When Gilder shared with Foote her worry that Lazarus had designs on Gilder’s brother, the playboy-poet Charles deKay, it was Foote who commented, “It seems to me so very inappropriate as to be quite absurd. ... Must I confess that the facts of her being of Jewish blood and an aspiring young poetess are my great stumbling blocks in her case.” As for Charles deKay, it was hard for him to take seriously Emma Lazarus’ passions. In 1881, deKay received a frantic telegram from his brother-in-law, Richard, telling him that Lazarus had “discovered the devil” (a transgression I am unable to determine) and warning deKay that the enraged Lazarus was en route to New York. In response, deKay composed a jocular poem deriding Lazarus’ unseemly social and literary ambitions. Lazarus never saw it, but I did, on microfilm.
Emma Lazarus couldn’t have known, for example, that to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s daughter, Ellen Emerson, she was “a real unconverted Jew,” or that William James referred to her, in a letter written to his wife, as a “Jewess.” Another archive told me how offended her family had been in 1903 when an ad pleaded for funds to create a plaque with “The New Colossus” to be mounted inside the Statue of Liberty. And how they had tried, futilely, to stop it. And anyone who peruses Emma Lazarus’ posthumous poems (1889) will learn, as I did, how her beloved sisters violated her trust, scrapping her deathbed collection of poems and rearranging her oeuvre in the grim decorum of their grief.
Writing the life of Emma Lazarus, I learned humility, as every biographer does. Like all lives, hers was not lived to be written. Even the most handsome and illustrious of lives is obscure, diffuse, and inscrutable, unfinished even as it ends. But I also learned that lives cast shadows — patterns, debts, legacies, and yes, secrets — unfathomable to those who live them. These the biographer strains to discern; at least, discerning ones do. Between one kind of darkness and another, we biographers do our work.