American poet; born July 22, 1849, in New York city; died there Nov. 19, 1887; daughter of Moses and Esther (Nathan) Lazarus. She was educated by private tutors, and early manifested poetic taste and talent. The first stimulus to her muse was offered by the Civil war. A collection of her "Poems and Translations," verses written between the ages of fourteen and seventeen, appeared in 1867 (New York), and was commended by William Cullen Bryant. This volume was followed, in 1871, by "Admetus, and Other Poems" (ib.). The title-poem was dedicated "To my friend Ralph Waldo Emerson," whose works and personality were exercising an abiding influence upon the poet's intellectual growth. During the next decade, in which "Phantasies" and "Epochs" were written, her poems appeared chiefly in "Lippincott's Magazine" and "Scribner's Monthly."
By this time her work had won recognition abroad. Her first prose production, "Alide: An Episode ofGoethe's Life," treating of the Fredericka Brion incident, was published in 1874 (Philadelphia), and was followed by "The Spagnoletto" (1876), a drama, and by "Poems and Ballads of Heinrich Heine" (New York, 1881), to which a biographical sketch of Heine was prefixed. Her renderings of some of Heine's verse are considered among the best in English. In April, 1882, she published in "The Century" the article "Was the Earl of Beaconsfield a Representative Jew?" Her statement of the reasons for answering this question in the affirmative may be taken to close what may be termed the Hellenic and journeyman period of Emma Lazarus' life, during which her subjects were drawn from classic and romantic sources.
What was needed to make her a poet of the people as well as of the literary gild was a great theme, the establishment of instant communication between some stirring reality and her still-hidden and irresolute subjectivity. Such a theme was provided by the immigration of Russian Jews to America, consequent upon the proscriptive May Laws of 1881. She rose to the defense of her race in powerful articles contributed to "The Century" (May, 1882, and Feb., 1883). Hitherto her life had held no Jewish inspiration. Though of Sephardic stock, and ostensibly Orthodox in belief, her family had hitherto not participated in the activities of the Synagogue or of the Jewish community. Contact with the unfortunates from Russia led her to study the Bible, the Hebrew language, Judaism, and Jewish history. Besides, she suggested, and in part saw executed, plans for the welfare of the immigrants. The literary fruits of identification with her race were poems like "The Crowing of the Red Cock," "The Banner of the Jew," "The Choice," "The New Ezekiel," "The Dance to Death" (a strong, though unequally executed drama), and her last published work (March, 1887), "By the Waters of Babylon: Little Poems in Prose," which, aglow with "a gleam of the solemn fire of the Hebrew prophets," constitutes her strongest claim to a foremost rank in American literature.
During the same period (1882-87) she translated the Hebrew poets of medieval Spain with the aid of the German versions of Michael Sachs and AbrahamGeiger, and wrote articles, signed and unsigned, upon Jewish subjects for the Jewish press, besides essays on "Bar Kochba," "Henry Wadsworth Long-fellow," "M. Renan and the Jews," etc., for Jewish literary associations, all the while continuing her purely literary and critical work in the magazines in such articles as "Tommaso Salvini," "Salvini's 'King Lear,'" "Emerson's Personality," "Heine, the Poet," "A Day in Surrey with William Morris," etc. Her most notable series of articles was that entitled "An Epistle to the Hebrews" ("The American Hebrew," Nov. 10, 1882-Feb. 24, 1883), in which she discussed the Jewish problems of the day, urged a technical and a Jewish education for Jews, and ranged herself among the advocates of an independent Jewish nationality and of Jewish repatriation in Palestine. The only collection of poems issued during this period was "Songs of a Semite: The Dance to Death and Other Poems" (New York, 1882), dedicated to the memory of George Eliot. After her death appeared "The Poems of Emma Lazarus" (2 vols., Boston and New York, 1889), which comprise such of her poetic work in previous collections, in periodical publications, and from among her literary remains as her executors deemed proper to preserve in permanent form.
Emma Lazarus counted among her friends many of the prominent literary men of the day. Doubtless she is the most distinguished literary figure produced by American Jewry, and possibly the most eminent poet among Jews since Heine and Judah Löb Gordon. From a point of view transcending the racial, she ranks high as a writer; and her later work would seem to indicate that, if days had been granted her, she might have risen to a place in the first class. In May, 1903, a bronze tablet commemorative of her was placed inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor.
- The American Hebrew, xxxiii., Nos. 3, 5;
- The Critic, xi. 293;
- Memoir prefixed to The Poems of Emma Lazarus (first published in The Century, xiv. 875);
- The American (Philadelphia), xvii. 295;
- The Literary World (Boston), xx. 36;
- The Spectator (London), lxiii. 608;
- Poet-Lore (Boston), v. 320;
- Appleton's Cyclopœdia of American Biography;
- Markens, The Hebrews in America, pp. 260-261;
- Kayserling, Die Jüdischen Frauen, p. 304;
- Nahida Remy, Das Jüdische Weib, pp. 281-282;
- Library of American Literature, x. 492-498, xi. 543;
- Henry S. Morais, Eminent Israelites of the Nineteenth Century, pp. 186-192.