Immigrant Claims

In 1883, Emma Lazarus published “The New Colossus.” It has since become an emblem for the American Immigrant Dream:

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-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

As always, one must begin with form. Generally, the sonnet is described as a closed form, one with recognizable rules, though poets often bend them. What might it mean to celebrate freedom and welcome in a closed form? But while the form might be “closed,” it is also an Italian, not English, sonnet. Given the status of Italian immigrants at the end of the nineteenth-century—not good—and given Lazarus’s own Jewish identity—Jewish immigrants—not good, how might we read this poem against the identity claims it seems to stake? (My more aesthetic friends will accuse me of using identity politics to misread poetry. Of course I am. With no shame.)

If we take identity claims into consideration, this poem becomes a more radical, mongrel assertion, not only welcoming immigrants into America, but chastising America for being unwelcoming.

At the close of the nineteenth-century, America did not want the “tired,” the “poor,” the “huddled masses,” or the “wretched refuse.” While the eugenic impulses governing immigration would come into full force later, in the 1910s and 1920s, native-born Americans complained about immigrants: they were dirty, lacked manners, would never assimilate, were anarchists. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act (they were the Mexicans of the day), to prevent new Chinese immigration into the country. Through the 1910s and 1920s, a series of laws were enacted to prohibit mostly Asian immigrants (predominantly the Japanese) from leasing or owning land and, eventually, from moving to America.

Although Lazarus’s poem has often been taken as an assertion of America’s pride in her immigrants, it is better seen as an ironic comment on a male congress intent on enacting exclusionary laws. Like Whitman, Lazarus offers a vision not of how America is but how it could be.

She issues, as well, an ongoing challenge to immigration efforts: would it be possible to craft an immigration policy that did not favor the wealthy and the middle-class? Without such a policy, can America truly be the “nation of immigrants” it claims to be? Or does it always default to what my favorite racist modernist Madison Grant called a nation for “native Americans of Colonial descent?”

Staying within my identity politics framework (in other words, I acknowledge and ignore the claim that the sonnet is an international, cosmopolitan form), I am interested in understanding this blend of Italian form and Jewish author anchored to a French object as a way to re-think Lazarus’s claims on behalf of “wretched refuse.”