Page 99 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 7 (1948-1949)

Basic HTML Version

MORDELL---- 100TH BIRTHDAY OF EMMA LAZARUS
87
did not include any poem by her in his anthology
Parnassus
(1874), in spite of an admiration for her talents expressed in
letters to her, and of years of friendship. She protested to him in
an agonizing letter in which she quoted all his previous eulogies
of her work. In this letter, dated December 27, 1874 from her
home 36 West 14th St., New York, she concludes by asking him
whether he had changed his opinion of her work, or whether it
was really sincere at the time delivered by him.*
The matter was also painful to Emma Lazarus because Emerson
had by now been an old personal friend. She had met him in New
York at a private gathering in 1870 over six years previously. He
had consoled her in the period of depression she underwent at the
time of a great tragedy that befell the family, when her uncle
Benjamin Nathan, brother of her mother, was brutally murdered.
The murder attracted wide attention and was never solved.
Emma’s friendship with Emerson was maintained in spite of his
treatment of her. Nevertheless she lost faith in Emerson as a
critic, especially when she found he did not care for the poetry of
Poe and Shelley. She might have found solace in the fact that
Emerson dealt a similar injustice to Walt Whitman whom he
excluded from his
Parnassus
in spite of his lavish extollation of the
Leaves of Grass.
Incidentally, Walt Whitman was interested in Emma Lazarus’s
work though he knew only a few of her poems. His curiosity was
excited by the article about her in the October 1888
Century
Magazine
by her sister, and he told Horace Traubel that the
portrait there showed a beautiful face that was an argument in
itself for a great, sweet, unusual nature. He said he was happy
to learn that there was nothing smart or vitriolic in her work. He
labored under a misapprehension that Miss Lazarus never sought
him out because she had been warned against him. He apparently
was not aware that one of her early poems “How Long,” though
not in the irregular rhythm used by him was written under his
influence, and that it voiced the same kind of plea he had made
for freedom of American letters from English influences. Emerson
had introduced her to Whitman’s work.
Emma Lazarus was one of a talented family numbering promi-
nent bankers, stock-brokers, lawyers, rabbis and writers. Two of
her first cousins, the sisters Maud Nathan (1862-1946) and Annie
*I have been enabled to see a copy o f this letter as well as of other unpublished
letters by Miss Lazarus to Emerson through the kindness of Mr. Abner A. Miller
of the English Department of the John Bartram High School of Philadelphia who
has done special research on Emma Lazarus.
The original letters of Emma Lazarus are the property of the Ralph Waldo
Emerson Memorial Association at Harvard University.