February 25, 2013

Emma Lazarus and "the Hebraic strain"

When Emma Lazarus died at age 38 in 1887, the copyright of her poems was left in the care of her older sister, Josephine. She accordingly published a two-volume complete poems collection a year later. According to her biographical introduction, Josephine believed her sister was deeply private, but celebrate the family's Jewish heritage: "To be born a Jewess was a distinction to Emma Lazarus, and she in turn conferred distinction upon her race."

Emma's other sister Annie did not agree. 40 years after that statement, Annie was approached by a publisher who wanted to highlight Emma's various poems and translations celebrating her Jewish faith. On February 25, 1926, she declined permission, writing:

There has been a tendency on the part of her public to overemphasize the Hebraic strain of her work, giving it this quality of sectarian propaganda, which I greatly deplore, for I understand this to have been merely a phase in my sister's development, called for by righteous indignation at the tragic happenings of those days. Then, unfortunately, owing to her untimely death, this was destined to be her final word.

Annie had lived with Emma in Europe for her final years and, later, converted to Anglo-Catholicism herself. Her statement about her sister remains controversial — whether it truly reflected Emma's beliefs or Annie's.

In fact, Emma Lazarus's faith has become deeply intertwined with her public image since her death. In various biographical encyclopedias, her Jewish faith is nearly always mentioned; one referred to her melancholy as the result of "the unconscious expression of the inherited sorrow of her race" and a Jewish encyclopedia called her the "most distinguished literary figure produced by American Jewry." After the turn of the century, the New York Tribune called her "the most talented woman the Jewish race has produced in this country." Emma Lazarus and Judaism remain deeply interconnected even today (the image above is from the American Jewish Historical Society). In fact, Lazarus did have a strong "phase" at the end of her life in which she was deeply devoted to her Jewish faith, learned Hebrew, and translated poetry from that language. However, her faith was not exclusive to that period, nor was her religion her only interest.

*The majority of the information in this post was gleaned from a chapter called "The Myth" in Emma Lazarus in Her World: Life and Letters (1995) by Bette Roth Young.

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