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Beyond The Village and Back: the Statue of Liberty and “The New Colossus”

In our series Beyond the Village and Back, we take a look at some great landmarks throughout New York City outside of the Village, the East Village, and NoHo, celebrate their special histories, and reveal their (sometimes hidden) connections to the Village.

On an average day in New York City, you might catch sight of the Statue of Liberty on the subway, meandering down the High Line, or maybe if you are somewhere along the Lower Manhattan or Brooklyn waterfront. Standing resolutely in New York Harbor, the neoclassical colossus herself, whose full name is “Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World,” was unveiled and dedicated in New York Harbor on October 28, 1886.

Rendering of the opening day fireworks for the statue, courtesy of the NY Parks Service

The Statue of Liberty graces the one-dollar coin, stamps, and logos, and, of course, her destruction is depicted in countless disaster-apocalypse movies. She has been the subject of literature from O. Henry’s “The Lady Higher Up” to Kafka’s “Amerika.”  But in some ways, the most enduring element of her identity was forged in Greenwich Village.

The Statue of Liberty was conceived of by Edouard de Laboulaye and designed by French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi. It has connections to the Eiffel Tower as well: Gustave Eiffel was also behind the design for Liberty’s spine (such as it is – four iron columns supporting a metal framework that holds her copper skin). The seven spikes on the crown represent the seven oceans and the seven continents of the world, indicating the universal concept of liberty. Lady Liberty, as she’s called, is 305 feet tall and she wears a size 879 shoe! If you’ve ever visited The Liberty Island Museum in the Pedestal, you might have noticed that her nose is taller than most people.

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 1885, showing (clockwise from left) woodcuts of the completed statue in Paris, the Statue’s designer  Bartholdi, and the statue’s interior structure

The statue was presented as given as a gift of friendship from the people of France to the United States via the American Ambassador to France in Paris as a symbol of freedom and democracy on July 4, 1884. Brought to New York in 300 copper pieces in 214 crates on the French ship Isere, the Statue was assembled on site at Bedloe’s Island, which is now known as Liberty Island, between June 17, 1885, and its dedication on October 28, 1886. There are eight full and partial replicas of the Statue around Paris alone, and others around the world, as well.

The Statue’s Pedestal was designed by famed American architect Richard Morris Hunt. At the time, the funds had been raised for the transport and construction of the Statue herself, but the money for the construction of the Pedestal was still in progress. It was the need to raise funds for the construction of the pedestal that got a Greenwich Village resident named Emma Lazarus involved.

Emma Lazarus, born on July 22, 1849, in New York City, was the fourth of seven children in a wealthy Sephardic Jewish family. Lazarus, who’s been called a reclusive spinster, was a lifelong Villager, descended from some of the first Jewish Portuguese immigrants to the New World. She began writing poetry when she was 11 years old, and as an adult she was broadly published, writing volumes of poetry and translations, and joining the world of writers, corresponding regularly with poets and writers of the time including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry James. Lazarus also worked with refugees at Ward’s Island, as an aide for Jewish immigrants who had been detained. She was deeply moved by the plight of the Russian Jews she met there and these experiences influenced her writing.

Portrait of Emma Lazarus. Courtesy of the American Jewish Historical Society.

In 1883 the Lazarus family moved to 18 West 10th Street, a beautiful Italianate-style home (pictured below) which is featured on GVSHP’s Civil Rights and Social Justice Map for its significance in Women’s History and Civil RightsIt was in that year that Lazarus was asked to write a poem about the Statue of Liberty to help J. Carroll Beckwith and William Merritt Chase, instructors at the Art Students League, who organized the fundraising art exhibition and auction raising funds to build the Statue’s pedestal.  She was asked by fellow writer Constance Cary Harrison, who wrote “I begged Miss Lazarus to give me some verses appropriate to the occasion. She was at first inclined to rebel against writing anything ‘To order’ as it were.”

But write it she did. Lazarus’ sonnet The New Colossus includes the now-famous line:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Most of us are familiar with this message of welcoming, generosity, and humanity, which complemented and shaped what the Statue of Liberty has come to represent around the world. But this poem, so strongly associated with the statue and its meaning today, had only a scant connection to the monument for the first several decades of its life.

Writer and New Yorker Paul Auster wrote in his Collected Prose: “Bartholdi’s gigantic effigy was originally intended as a monument to the principles of international republicanism, but The New Colossus reinvented the statue’s purpose, turning Liberty into a welcoming mother, a symbol of hope to the outcasts and downtrodden of the world.” The poem is engraved on a bronze plaque inside the Statue’s pedestal, which also houses the Statue of Liberty Museum.

The home where Lazarus wrote The New Colossus, and the historic plaque marking the home at 18 West 10th Street

The Jewish Women’s Archive Encyclopedia contextualizes Lazarus’s poem with her work as a humanitarian:

In the 1880s, a wave of anti-Semitic pogroms across Eastern Europe prompted a massive Jewish flight to America. During this time, Lazarus, who was already a well-known poet, became involved in visiting Russian refugees and volunteering for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Inspired by the suffering and fortitude of these immigrants, Lazarus used her literary prominence to call attention to… the history of Jewish suffering and the continued plight of many immigrants found expression in The New Colossus, among other powerful works.

Emma Lazarus died on November 19, 1887, after she was taken ill during a trip to Europe. She was 36-years old and though at the time newspapers reported that she died of blockage in her lungs, it’s broadly agreed that she most likely had Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

It wasn’t until 1903 that her mostly-forgotten poem The New Colossus came to be inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. Emma Lazarus had become friends with Georgina Schuyler  (the daughter of George Lee Schuyler and Eliza Hamilton Schuyler, the daughter of Alexander and Eliza Hamilton), who, in 1901, 17 years after Lazarus’s death, “found a book containing the sonnet in a bookshop and organized a civic effort to resurrect the lost work. Her efforts paid off and in 1903, words from the sonnet were inscribed on a plaque and placed on the inner wall of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Today, the plaque is on display in the Statue of Liberty Exhibit in the Statue’s pedestal” (writes the NY Park Service).  In 1945, the plaque was moved to the Statue’s main entrance hall.

The bronze plaque inside the Statue of Liberty Pedestal, in loving memory of Emma Lazarus

The Statue was designated as a National Monument in 1924, has been in the care of the National Parks Service since 1933, and in 1984 her torch was replaced due to erosion with a replica copper structure covered completely in gold leaf, which is why we can see the flame as gold while the rest of her copper body has oxidized green, as copper does when exposed to the elements.

The Statue of Liberty has been inextricably linked with the words of Emma Lazarus’s poem, becoming part of our national identity as a home to immigrants.  It has cemented the identity of New York as a beacon of hope and welcoming, and this as part of the American story and ideal. The Statue of Liberty is an essential part of New York City’s landscape, no matter where you might catch sight of it, or just feel comforted knowing that it’s there, knowing that it’s a piece of public art and that it means so much. Cited frequently, The New Colossus continues to symbolize all it inspires in those who encounter it, and the Statue, and New York, and the Village, where it was written by a great-great-grandchild of immigrants.

Emma Lazarus’s handwritten manuscript of The New Colossus, dated 1883. Appeared in the online exhibit “Haven to Home” at the Library of Congress.

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “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!”

November 2, 1883

Illustration of the Statue in an actively welcoming stance with an immigrant child and Emma Lazarus’s Poem. Drawing by Dow Phumiruk.

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