“The New Colossus”: Contexts, Controversies, and a Great American Sonnet

Few American poems have intervened as successfully and enduringly in the public sphere as “The New Colossus,” the sonnet composed by Jewish American poet, essayist, and journalist Emma Lazarus. Composed in 1883 as part of a fundraising campaign to build a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty (or Liberty Enlightening the World, as its sculptor, Auguste Bartholdi, named it), “The New Colossus” was added to the pedestal in 1903, but only in the 1930s did the poet’s claim that the statue represents a “Mother of Exiles” welcoming immigrants to their new home begin to be broadly championed in political discourse. This seminar will explore how the meanings and artistry of “The New Colossus” come into fresh focus when it is read in a variety of contexts, including American history, the histories of the poem’s reception, its various genres (the sonnet, ekphrastic poetry, etc.), its author’s career, and its place in Jewish American culture. Debates about the meanings of the Statue of Liberty will be addressed, as will other poems about the Statue, some of which respond to the Lazarus sonnet, including texts by Adrienne Rich, Tony Kushner, and Thalias Moss.