In 1883, Emma Lazarus wrote “The New Colossus”, one of the most famous American poems ever. In it, she imagines the Statue of Liberty overlooking the New York harbor and welcoming immigrants who are fleeing oppression.
You have, without doubt, heard this part:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”
They’re genuinely stirring lines! American politicians and businesspeople love to quote them, because they beautifully evoke the image of America as a worldwide beacon of liberty. Listen to any speech about immigration, and you’ll hear this passage.
But the poem doesn’t end there. The Statue of Liberty goes on to describe, in more depth, the type of immigrants she’s talking about. Let’s extend the quote a bit further:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
“The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” Now, that is a gut-punch of a line. (Purely as a matter of verse, the way those iambs land on the rhyming syllables of the first two words — the WRE-tched RE-fuse — is like a pneumatic naildriver. WHAM WHAM WHAM! I love it.)
But the point is, this additional line complicates the political picture a bit, doesn’t it?
Lazarus is talking about people who have been immiserated, mistreated and impoverished. She’s talking about those who’ve been through so much suffering it that can make them hard for comfortable folks to behold: Refuse. And Lazarus isn’t using that word with contempt. She knew many refugees personally. But she understood how serious misery can render a migrant paradoxically unsympathetic to others. And she wrote the poem to turn that psychology on its head: Lady Liberty is specifically urging the despots of other countries to keep their fancy, gilded palaces — and instead, to send the absolutely desperate.
Now, US politicians and business leaders often ululate over the benefits of immigration. But often it feels like they focus on the immigrants who self-evidently would “benefit” the country: The scrappy entrepreneurs who’ll come and start firms! The doctors and architects! The best and the brightest, the ones who understandably crave greater liberties! These politicians and businessfolk seldom seem as eager to embrace the truly desperate — the terrified, beaten-down ones that Lazarus wrote about in her poem: Those who today are fleeing the horrors of Syria, South Sudan, or the conflicts of sub-Saharan Africa.
And you can hear it, I think, in how politicians quote that poem. They’ll very often piously cite the first part of that passage — but only rarely utter the second.
At least, that’s how it seemed to me, as I read the daily news. Then I realized I could test my hypothesis … using Google’s ngram. That’s the tool that lets you input short strings of text and see how their usage has risen or fallen in books over the last hundred-odd years.
Now, you’re only allowed to use phrases up to five words. So I took representative chunks of those lines — “masses yearning to breathe” vs. “wretched refuse of your” — and compared them. Voila:
Sure enough, you can see that the lines are quoted at nearly the same rate — until just after WWII, when they begin to diverge. The “huddled masses” become more and more memorable and quoted; the “wretched refuse” fall back. In this divergence we can spy a subtle shift in how America talks to itself about immigration. (You can see and tweak the actual chart itself.)
Granted, there are tons of caveats here, including: i) Google ngram itself. Word-incidence in books isn’t necessarily a super meaningful metric of cultural change. (The books in ngram are global, not just American, of course.) Plus, ii) there might be other ways to chunk the lines that disproves or inverts these results. And more fatally yet, iii) some of the divergence may be a feedback loop. Once the “yearning to breathe free” line got a small early advantage in being-quoted-more-often, it could easily produce a cascade of success, because it would quickly become the only line anyone has ever heard from the poem at all. Latter-day quoters will thus be not so much ignoring the second line as simply unaware it even exists.
Still, I think it’s a fun way to think about the changing meaning of this quintessentially American poem.
Oh, and: Other trivia about “The New Colossus”! One fun fact is that Lazarus wrote it to help raise money for building the base for the Statue of Liberty. And, man, did it need fundraising. People love the statue now, but back then it wasn’t very popular; Congress was unhappy at having to pay for the upkeep of the this gift from France, and many thought it was super ugly. (When the raised hand of liberty, holding the torch, was put on display in Madison Square Park — months before the full statue was complete — it was widely mocked. Montague Marks, an art-magazine editor, wrote that “The torch in the hand of the absent goddess suggests the idea of an immense double tooth which has just been extracted from some unfortunate mastodon, and is held aloft in triumph by the successful operator”).
Some people thought the poem was better than the statue. As Esther Schor notes in her biography Emma Lazarus:
In “The New Colossus,” as James Russell Lowell wrote, she had invented her own “noble” pedestal for the statue, “saying admirably just the right word to be said, an achievement more arduous than that of the sculptor.” Her sonnet, he noted, provided the statue at last with a “raison d’être”; in fact, he liked it “much better than I like the Statue itself.”
Or to put it another way — the poem was the first thing to explain what the heck the statue meant.
It gave the Statue of Liberty a particular purpose: To be a totem not merely of freedom, but of immigration. Lazarus knew a fair bit about immigration, because she’d been spending time visiting Russian-Jewish refugees who were housed in shelters on Ward’s Island. That’s where her line about “wretched refuse” comes from. She’d seen it firsthand, and could imagine the coming day when the Statue, installed at last, would be the first thing those wretches would see as their boat approached New York’s shore.
So the poem was microfamous when the Statue first went up, but pretty soon people forgot about it. It didn’t come back into the public consciousness until the horrors of WWII loomed. As Schor writes:
In 1935, as the Statue of Liberty approached her fiftieth birthday, a writer for the New York Times Magazine wrote: “If she had a tongue what she could tell!” That Liberty had been given a tongue by Emma Lazarus was noted in a letter to the editor, which quoted all fourteen lines of an obscure sonnet, “The New Colossus.” By the end of the decade, a Slovenian-American immigrant named Louis Adamic had seized upon the sonnet to celebrate the nation’s immigrants and their ethnicities. In Adamic’s hands, the sonnet’s fortunes were transformed and the Statue of Liberty became, for a generation poised to receive thousands of refugees from Hitler’s Europe, once again a “Mother of Exiles.” [snip]
Alfred Hitchcock ended his wartime Saboteur (1942) the crown of the statue, with his heroine quoting the sonnet to an enemy agent. By the end of the war, the plaque bearing the poem had been given a more prominent place at the entrance. With the 1949 Broadway debut of Miss Liberty, composed by the Russian-Jewish immigrant Israel Baline, who went by the name of Irving Berlin, the famous final lines of “The New Colossus” acquired a schmaltzy musical setting, by no means their only one.
Check the ngram chart again: You can see how the poem’s promotion by Adamic — a translator and author himself — helped. It’s precisely around the late 1930s that those famous lines shoot upward together, before diverging.
And by the way, if you haven’t read the poem in its entirety, here you go:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”