With the exception of her sonnet, The New Colossus", which is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, the work of Emma Lazarus is almost unknown today. In her short life, Lazarus produced an impressive body of poetry, translations, and plays. In particular she wrote poems on Jewish themes, on pogroms in Europe, and on an incipient Zionism. She is the first significant Jewish-American poet and is still, I believe, one of the most important.
Ms. Roth-Young's book is divided into two sections, the first consisting of a biography of Emma Lazarus the second consisting of a selection of her letters discovered and published for the first time by the author. Roth-Young has a knowledge of and affection for her subject. Roth-Young attacks views of Lazarus that had been advanced by earlier writers, creating what she describes as a "myth". The "myth" sees Emma Lazarus as a reclusive spinster who discovered her Jewish roots in the early 1880 and changed from a late-Victorian poet with traditional late romantic themes to an ardent poet of Judaism.
Because the work and life of Emma Lazarus are so little known, the critique of earlier writers appears overdone. A straightforward narrative might have been more effective. Roth-Young's portrait, and the letters, show, indeed a cosmopolitan, highly social Emma Lazarus who travelled twice to Europe in the final years of her life (1885-1887) and appeared more concerned with European culture and art than with recovering her Jewish past. It remains questionable, however, whether this is the whole story of a life or whether it is as inconsistent with earlier readings of Lazarus's life as Roth-Young believes it is.
Lazarus described herself as a recluse; she was sensitive about her unmarried state. A large and varied correspondence does not rebut this self-perception. The book points to ambivalences in Lazarus's attitude towards Judaism, and this is useful in understanding her work.
The book also could have used a fuller discussion of Emma Lazarus's poetry because, as Roth-Young is aware, it is virtually forgotten today. The forward to the book by Frances Klagsburn suggests that Emma Lazarus's poetry was largely conventional and derivative and that her Jewish poetry suffers from a certain lack of distance and personal involvement. There is not sufficient discussion of the poetry in the book to convince the reader that this is true. My own reading of this poetry is that it is a thoughtful and important predecessor of the liberal Judaism of our own day with much to teach about the value of non-fundamentalist religion in a secular world.
This book is a good introduction to Emma Lazarus who deserves the status Roth-Young thinks she already has as something of an American icon due to her association with the Statue of Liberty. I hope it will encourage the interested reader to search out the works of this too little known American poet.