With the seemingly never-ending stream of embarrassments, travesties, and demagoguery that erupt from the Trump White House on a daily basis, what difference does a sonnet make?
From Trump’s precedent-shattering tweets threatening members of his own cabinet to the ongoing Mueller investigation, which seems as if it will ultimately reveal that the administration is guilty of gross executive incompetence at best and potential treason at worst, what difference do fourteen-lines written in 1883 possibly make?
On Wednesday August, 2, White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, who has a lengthy history of supporting far right and white nationalist political causes, got into an argument with CNN anchor Jim Acosta over Emma Lazarus’s poem inscribed on the base of the State of Liberty.
Miller had been carted out to brief the press on Trump’s draconian new immigration proposals, which would drastically reduce legal immigration, and make knowledge of English a prerequisite to even initiating naturalization (knowledge of the language is already required for those taking the citizenship test).
Acosta queried whether the new legislation was in keeping with Lazarus’s poem, whose conclusion implores the world to “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Miller responded to Acosta that “the poem that you’re referring to was added later. It’s not actually part of the Statue of Liberty.”
For those keeping score, Miller is literally correct, if completely wrong about the obvious historical connection between verse and statue which has accrued for more than a century.
Whether Miller is lying or merely poorly informed is a matter between him and his confessor, to be given over to whatever conscience he may have.
Trump’s legislation – which in severity is reminiscent to the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 that severely limited southern and eastern European immigration while entirely freezing that from Asia and Africa, and which was only overturned in 1965 – has almost no chance of passing in Congress.
Whether paper tigers such as this proposed legislation, not to mention Trump’s transgender military ban, are simply red meat for his base thrown out to distract from his ongoing administrative failures or born from a genuine (if noxious) ideological commitment is up for debate, but ultimately that probably doesn’t matter much.
What does matter is the crucial need to push back on every lie promoted by agents of this administration, and fabricated comments about history and culture are just as important to dispute as their lies about policy – maybe more so.
That Miller would claim Lazarus’s “New Colossus” simply has an incidental relationship to the Statue that it frames is not just an issue of misinterpretation, it’s a callous fabrication, one with real-world implications, and it behooves us to defend both Lazarus and Liberty.
The Statue of Liberty was of course a gift from the French government that was erected in New York Harbor in 1886, and Lazarus’s lyric wasn’t added until 1903, a difference of less than two decades – though it should be pointed out that the poem was written as part of a fundraising campaign for the erection of the statue, three years before Liberty’s beacon would light out over the Manhattan skyline.
By 1903 the statue had become firmly intertwined in the minds of Americans with images of immigrants arriving by boat to Ellis Island only a few miles away from the New Colossus.
In the century since, both the poem and Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s massive sculpture have become a central part of American identity and the personal stories of millions of Americans.
It’s the height of disingenuousness to claim that the poem is “not actually part of the Statue of Liberty.” In the first decade-and-a-half of the twentieth century, Ellis Island welcomed close to twelve million new Americans, and it has been estimated that close to a third of Americans are descended from somebody who passed by Lazarus’s poem chiseled on that pedestal (three times more than can claim Mayflower ancestry).
The arrival of Catholic and Jewish immigrants, born in Italy, Ireland, Germany, Greece, Poland, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and a multitude of other locations has incalculably altered and made American culture great, transforming our literature, music, cuisine, and language while birthing an inestimably richer nation – as indeed new groups of immigrants continue to do today.
And the generations descended from that great wave of immigration have ascended to the heights of politics, business, technology, the military, academe, and the arts, not to mention working as skilled laborers, helping to improve every aspect of the United States.
The Statue of Liberty figures in the family legends of millions of us, maybe even the reader of this article.
Perhaps even the stories of the Glotzer family, Belarussian Jews escaping pogroms who immigrated shortly after Lazarus’s words were permanently affixed at the base of that beautiful copper-green statue, and from whom one of their descendants now has the opportunity to work in the White House, a man named Stephen Miller.
Rarely do poems, especially old ones, make front-page news in the United States, and even if it’s for a dubious reason it warms my literary scholar’s heart to see “The New Colossus” discussed in the public arena.
Lazarus was a student of American transcendentalism, a correspondent with Ralph Waldo Emerson, and a celebrated poet and playwright in her own lifetime, with her biographer Esther Schor arguing that the poet was crucial in inventing the “role of an American Jewish writer,” and was a “prophetess of multicultural America.”
Her lyric has become such a central part of American civil observance (despite Miller’s spurious claims) – recited by school children, referenced in popular culture, and read by millions of tourists every year – that it’s easy to forget the aesthetic majesty of the poem.
Contrary to Roberto Suro’s contention in Politico that the poem is simply a “schmaltzy sonnet,” Lazarus’s verse is an underrated triumph. That it’s an example of Victorian sentimentalism, which is a critique often leveled to silence past female writers, is of no import.
A perfectly crafted Petrarchan sonnet which fuses the Hellenic and Hebraic themes which constitute Western culture while gesturing to something even more universal, “The New Colossus” has been underappreciated for its literary qualities.
She rejects the “brazen giant of Greek fame” in the Colossus of Rhodes, for the American statue does not have “conquering limbs.” Rather, she glows green with “world-wild welcome” looking out on “twin cities” with “mild eyes.”
The Statue of Liberty may be a product of the Old World, but within her bosom she demonstrates the dreams of a New World, from the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free, /The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
Lazarus’s Liberty is the “Mother of Exiles,” a name printed in all capitals like the covenant carved into tablets at Sinai, like God’s name “I AM.”
She is the welcoming, matronly, caring, powerful visage of Liberty, whose “golden door” welcomed the grandparents and great-grandparents of fully a third of this nation, some of whom sadly wish to close that door behind them.
What a poorer country we would be, culturally, spiritually, intellectually, not to mention economically, had those twelve million who found succor at the Statue’s feet been denied that entrance?
Speaking of the grandchildren of Italian, Irish, German, and eastern European immigrants who sailed through New York Harbor, Miller’s friend and former classmate the white nationalist Richard Spencer tweeted, “It’s offensive that such a beautiful, inspiring statue was ever associated with ugliness, weakness, and deformity.”
The “ugliness, weakness, and deformity” he speaks of are those of you, those of us, whose ancestors left from Naples, Hamburg, Liverpool, Dublin, Warsaw, and Minsk. Some of those descendants, tragically, voted for the current occupant of the White House. They should remember that people like Miller, and worse, have his ear.
But if we’re to be pedantic literalists, and ignore the association with immigration which the Statue of Liberty has developed over the past twelve decades, then by all means let’s return to her original purpose if we must.
That was when the statue was commissioned and designed by the inheritors of the radical French Jacobin tradition and given as a gift to the United States in honor of the abolition of slavery and the defeat of the shameful slaving nation of the Confederacy.
Note that there are broken chains at her feet representing the triumph of abolitionism and the sacred contention that all people are created equal. Whether as “Mother of Exiles,” or as profound symbol of anti-slavery, the glow of Liberty’s beacon can’t be extinguished by historical obfuscation and lies.
Lazarus’s poem written as with lightning at the base of that triumphant statue is arguably the creed of our multicultural covenant, an expansive, universalist understanding of America as not just a country of blood and soil like any other country, but rather a repository for the dreams, aspirations, and striving of all humankind, everywhere and for everyone.
Ed Simon is a senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books.