Esther Schor: The Miller-Acosta exchange was an amazing recitation of fake history about a revered American poem
Miller was right the poem was added later, but he was dead wrong on other points about "The New Colossus," Schor writes
Editor’s Note: Esther Schor, a professor of English and a poet, is the inaugural Behrman Professor in the Humanities Council at Princeton University and Acting director of the council. She is the author of a biography of Emma Lazarus. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Unlike Stephen Miller, the 31-year-old senior adviser to the President, who protested that he didn’t want to “get off into a whole thing about history,” when it comes to immigration, the Statue of Liberty and Emma Lazarus’ poem, “The New Colossus,” I’m eager to do so.
As Lazarus’s biographer, I’ve been receiving Google alerts for “huddled masses” at least daily since Donald Trump launched his anti-immigrant presidential campaign. In Wednesday’s heated exchange between Miller and CNN’s Jim Acosta, the nation watched these famous lines become “fighting words,” but in fact, they have been just that for years.
Acosta, himself the son of a Cuban immigrant, rattled Miller, the great-grandson of Yiddish-speaking immigrants, by charging that the Raise Act’s immigration reforms, which favor English-speakers in granting admission to the United States, are “not in keeping with American tradition.”
“The Statue of Liberty,” he reminded Miller, “says, ‘give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,’” adding, correctly, “It doesn’t say anything about speaking English or being able to be a computer programmer.”
In his now-infamous retort, Miller dismissed the poem: “[T]he Statue of Liberty is a symbol of liberty enlightening the world. It’s a symbol of American liberty lighting the world. The poem that you’re referring to was added later, is not actually a part of the original Statue of Liberty.” Miller went on to mock Acosta, drilling him on what Miller called the “The Statue of Liberty poem law of the land.”
I agree with Miller that “this [was] an amazing moment” but not because of Acosta’s putative “cosmopolitanism” (itself a historically loaded term). No; this was an amazing recitation of fake history, a Trump apologist telling a reporter that a revered American poem must be dismissed on the ground that it’s a fake law (Miller baited Acosta repeatedly about different moments in immigration history, asking “is that violating or not violating the Statue of Liberty law of the land?”)
On one count, Miller’s history was correct: Lazarus’ poem, though written several years before the statue was dedicated in 1886, was “added later.” In 1903, 15 years after Lazarus’ death at 38 from cancer, a friend had the poem cast on a bronze plaque and donated it to the statue.
But on two counts, Miller was dead wrong. First, saying the poem was physically “added later” reduces the statue to a copper effigy and the poem to an inert plaque. The Statue of Liberty, covered with verdigris and weathered by more than a century of wind and salt, is no more the gleaming copper monument it was in 1886 than the poem is a bunch of lines inscribed on a piece of bronze.
Second, the statue was never “a symbol of American liberty lighting (sic) the world.” It was the brainchild of French historian and abolitionist Édouard René de Laboulaye, and like many monuments, it had a complex genesis.
Inspired by the 1865 US emancipation of slaves (the French had finally emancipated theirs in 1848), Laboulaye in 1875 commissioned a statue that would link the emancipation of slaves with the values of the French Enlightenment, newly revived in the Third Republic of 1870.
“Liberty Enlightening the World” would show the world that, in the wake of the repressive Second Empire, France and liberty were, again, one. The French people would fund the statue, while the Americans agreed to pay for the construction of the pedestal.
To most Americans of the time, it was a very French affair, and they took little interest in the cause. In a last-ditch effort to raise the money before the statue arrived, a Pedestal Fund auction was set up and it was for this event that Emma Lazarus wrote the sonnet that would utterly recast the meaning of a statue she had never seen.
She imagined it as a symbol of America’s renunciation of conquest, empire, and pompous aristocracy. Enlightenment, in her view, was still “imprisoned,” as long as persecutions persisted, sending the oppressed in search of refuge.
Dubbing the statue a “New Colossus,” she saw in it a “Mother of exiles” whose “mild eyes” and lifted torch would welcome the poor and downtrodden from all lands. (Did Lazarus know that sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi had modeled the statue’s face on his mother’s?) Lazarus, a wealthy fourth- or fifth-generation American, had been deeply involved in the cause of Jewish exiles fleeing persecution in Russia, and her work with impoverished refugees had convinced her that the task of welcoming immigrants lay with the entire nation.
Even after the poem was placed inside the pedestal, it was several decades before pro-immigrationists in the 1930s seized upon “The New Colossus” to promote their cause. From then on, so tightly bound was poem to statue that aging refugees would recall reading it as they sailed past, though it was never visible from the outside.
Ever since, the poem has expressed an ideal of America as a haven for the poor and uneducated, people who, through schooling, English classes, and job training, would individuate themselves from the “huddled masses” with whom they’d arrived, to become proud citizens of the United States.
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Thanks to Emma Lazarus, the message of the Statue of Liberty, for the vast majority of Americans who understand it as a symbol of welcome to immigrants, is not “America First,” but “America, at last.”