Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” and the Continued Controversy between Americanism and Multiculturalism

Term Paper, 2014

20 Pages




I. Introduction

II The Statue of Liberty
II.1 Historical background
II.2 Symbolism
II.3 “The New Colossus”

III Immigrants’ reality
III.1 Formation of Anglo- Protestant core culture
III.2 Rise of anti- immigration sentiments
III.3 “Unguarded Gates”

IV Americanization versus multiculturalism
IV.1 Tomato soup, Melting Pot, Salad Bowl
IV.2 Rise of patriotism during World War II
IV.3 Deconstructionist Movement

V Influence of September 11th on American National Identity
V.1 Importance of National Identity over subnational identities
V.2 Restrictions on immigration

Research Report September 13th- October 4th

List of works cited

I. Introduction

Beginning with the interpretation and analysis of one of America’s probably most- cited and most well- known sonnets “The New Colossus” (1903) by Emma Lazarus, I will continue to explain its symbolic meaning throughout the 20th century until today and its significance in creating a commonly accepted national identity. After briefly outlining the history of the different waves of immigrants between the early 19th century and the beginning of World War I that took on the hardships of several weeks of oversea travel to find their very own pursuit of happiness in the ‘New World’, and also the ones coming mostly from South and Middle America in the 21st century, I will show that the ‘nation of immigrants’ has also always been a nation of nativists. As an example of the once widespread belief in the supremacy of the white race and the predominance of Anglo- Protestant culture, I will compare and contrast Thomas Bailey Aldrichs’s poem “Unguarded Gates” (1895) to the opposing ideal of freedom, equality and openness that is proposed not only by Lazarus’ work, but also repeatedly emphasized in manifestations of the American Creed, such as the National Anthem or the Pledge of Allegiance. Following Samuel P. Huntington’s question in “Who are we? The Challenges to America’s National Identity” (2004), I will then try to outline the phase of immigrants’ assimilation, as pictured by the Melting Pot metaphor, which was at that time challenged by the ‘tomato soup’ allegory and later replaced by the rising popularity of multiculturalism and the predominance of subnational identities over one’s national identity, best illustrated by the metaphor of a salad bowl.

The shock of September 11th however, again brought nationalist and patriotic feelings to the fore, causing not only a massive rise in restrictive immigration policies, such as the Patriot Act of 2002 or the Security Fence Act of 2006, but also raising questions concerning America’s future: will we see complete and thorough ‘hispanization’, the re-conquering of the state by Anglo- Protestant movements or rather the emergence of a bilingual society with two different cultures coexisting within one country? Is it even possible for America today to share a common national identity with only one language and only one dominant culture, while society is made up of so many different cultural sources? If European nations “grew out of well- prepared soil, built upon a foundation of history and traditions” (Commager 3), can the American people even be called a nation? ”For in America the state came before the nation” (Commager 3).

II The Statue of Liberty

II.1 Historical background

The Statue of Liberty, dedicated to the United States by the people of France on October 28th 1886, is one of today´s most well- known symbols of hope, freedom and democracy, as can be read on the National Park Service’s website.

However, the original intention of The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World, as it was formerly known, did not necessarily bear in mind the millions of immigrants for whom it would become a beacon of hope after spending several months in an overcrowded ship on the Atlantic Ocean. Its designers, Alexandre Gustave Eiffel and Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, hoped that this copper statue, commemorating the Declaration of Independence that had been signed over a hundred years earlier, would inspire the French to fight for their own freedom against the repressive monarchy of Napoleon ІІІ just like the American colonists had fought against the British paternalism.

It conveys this message through a number of symbols: the broken shackles at her feet signify escape from tyranny, while she is striding forward, facing the Old World. The seven spikes on the crown represent the seven continents, indicating the universal concept of liberty, while the robe reminds of the ancient Roman goddess Libertas, suggesting its early roots in history.

II.2 Symbolism

Only with the placing of “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus on a plaque in the pedestal in 1903 began the growth of the statue´s significance as an inspiration to immigrants who sailed past her on their way to Ellis Island, the famous screening depot in New York Bay that was established in 1891in order to calm the increasingly opposing sentiments towards immigrants within the American society. Although Lazarus didn´t yet see the statue while working on her sonnet, she was the first one to foresee its powerful symbolism before the peak of ‘new’ immigration between 1890 and 1914 had even started. While not being an immigrant herself, Lazarus created the poem anguished by the suffering and increasing impoverishment of Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe as a result of the progroms.

II.3 “The New Colossus”

“The New Colossus” was written as a petrarchan sonnet in 1882, using the first octave to introduce the idea of the Statue of Liberty as “Mother of Exiles” (l.6) and the adjacent sestet, spoken by Liberty herself, to propose a solution for the people that have been refused of the “teeming shores” (l.12) of the Old World. The fairly steady iambic pentameter enhances the image of a great ship, moved by the ocean´s waves while on its way towards a land of hope and unlimited opportunities.

Lazarus begins “The New Colossus” with a distinct contrast to the original Colossus of Rhodes, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, which was believed to have stood astride Rhodes harbor in 280 BC to commemorate a war victory. Negative connotations, such as “brazen”(l.1) and “conquering”(l.2) are used as opposed to “mighty”(l.4) and “mild”(l.7) to emphasize not only the physical but also the moral superiority of Lady Liberty, which is not merely commemorating a war, but displaying a concept of maternity (“Mother of Exiles” [l.6]). Both characterizations are divided by the alliteration “sea- washed, sunset [gates] shall stand” (l.3), which effectively bathes the entire scene in warm light to describe the immigrants´ promising first sight of their new home. Lazarus continues to use light and fire symbolism, such as her torch holding “imprisoned lightning” (l.5) to suggest almost divine powers which in turn creates the opposing image of an empress “command[ing] the air-bridged harbor” (l.7f) next to that of a universal mother.

The sestet is composed of two chiasmi which share a parallel structure, but contain antithetic statements: one telling the Old World to keep their “storied pomp” (l.9), an allusion for Europe´s long history of absolute monarchs and tyrants that have deprived the poor of even the most basic human rights in order to magnify their wealth, the other one ordering the immigrants´ native countries to send their “poor [and] huddled masses” (l.10f) to the United States, promising the fulfillment of their “yearning” (l.11) for freedom. Lazarus reapplies that same command compressed in the following two lines “The wretched refuse […] Send these, the homeless[…]” (l.12f), concluding with the promise of a “golden door” (l.14), again picking up the ‘light’- symbolism, to glorify the New World as the ‘city on a hill’ for God’s chosen people and to create associations of hope and salvation.

III Immigrants’ reality

Reality though often was very different from the shining image that Lazarus praises in her poem and that still today is the predominant picture associated with the United States as a ‘nation of nations’. Many immigrants soon realized that their first glimpse of the statue was only a temporary pleasure before being quarantined and inspected on Ellis Island, always in fear of forced deportation.

Just as Huntington points out in his work “Who are we? The Challenges to America´s National Identity” (2004), the American people who achieved independence in the late eighteenth century were not a highly diverse and multicultural society, but few and rather homogeneous: overwhelmingly white, British and Protestant.

III.1 Formation of Anglo- Protestant core culture

Even the founding documents, such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, as well as the ‘American Creed’, a set of commonly accepted principles and beliefs and also the key element of American national identity, are products of this dominant Anglo- Protestant culture, brought to America by the first British settlers in the seventeenth century. Since then, this culture whose central elements include the “ English language, Christian religion, Protestant values and work ethic, British traditions of law, justice and the limits of government power” (Huntington 2004, 40), has been central to the creation of an American identity and has generally been shared by all people living on American soil regardless of their ethnic background. This is why calling America a ‘Nation of immigrants’ is only a partial truth; “in its origins America was not a nation of immigrants, it was a society of settlers” (Huntington 2004, 39). The difference is that settlers never had to adapt to an existing culture: when the first English Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts in 1620, they came to create a new society, often referred to as ‘city on a hill’ that would allow them to reinforce the values they brought with them from their home country, while at the same time being able to create new values according to their religious beliefs. Immigrants, on the other hand, move from one society to another society. They might have similar reasons like settlers, such as for example religious or political persecution, or even famines, as it was the case for Irish immigrants in the middle of the nineteenth century, but arriving in an already existing society, the possibility of holding on to their cultural heritage was limited. Both ‘old-’ and ‘new-wave’-immigrants made an effort to assimilate into the dominant Anglo- Protestant culture as quickly as possible, because learning English back then was crucial in order to be able to find a job and make use of the economic opportunities available further west.

III.2 Rise of anti- immigration sentiments

However, until the middle of the nineteenth century, Americans tended to define themselves still in terms of ethnicity, race and culture, causing conflicts even between the different immigrant groups. While British immigrants were almost ‘invisible’ due to their language and similar cultural background, Scandinavians were “ridiculed for their homeland ways” (Mauk, Oakland, 62), Irish were stereotyped as “dirty, violent drunks” and thus Catholic and Germans were repeatedly stereotyped as “Bavarian louts” criticizing their “habit of drinking in beer halls after church”. Given the inevitable result of overcrowding, insanitary conditions and epidemics in most of the major cities following the first immigration peak of the mid- 1800s caused partially by the Gold Rush in California, anti- foreign agitation increased sharply in the 1850s. This led to the growing popularity of the Know- Nothing- Party, whose members shared the nativist sentiment that the rising number of immigrants, primarily Germans in the Midwest and Irish in the East, pose a threat to the economic and political security of native-born Protestant Americans. After being diffused by the coming of the Civil War, another similar movement motivated by the fear of unemployment and wage reduction started later in the century, ending with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

More and more Americans, including ‘old-wave’- immigrants, shared the feeling that the more ‘exotic’ ‘new’-immigrants from southern and eastern Europe could hardly be assimilated into their society because not only their appearance, but also their religion and underlying values differed greatly from the Anglo- Protestant norm.


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Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” and the Continued Controversy between Americanism and Multiculturalism
University of Passau
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Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus, Multiculturalism, Immigration, Nativism
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Anonymous, 2014, Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” and the Continued Controversy between Americanism and Multiculturalism, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/336336


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