One poem, one statue, and a cast of characters from Gilded Age America
Jul 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 42 • By DIANE SCHARPER
Did the United States really need a French statue, especially one of colossal proportions? The visionary French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi thought that it did. And if it weren’t for Bartholdi and his generous nature—to say nothing of his creative idealism—there would be no Statue of Liberty. Nor would there be “The New Colossus,” the poem by Emma Lazarus that is engraved on the statue’s pedestal. The poem serves as the linchpin of this novel, which charts the arduous course from its conception to the act of engraving—and proves, if nothing else, that there’s more than one way to make something right.
In 1865, Bartholdi conceived of a gigantic statue to be given as a gift to the United States for its upcoming centennial. As Bartholdi saw it, the French would fund the building of the statue and the Americans would fund the pedestal on which it would stand. Bartholdi even visited the United States in 1871 and found what he considered the perfect spot to display the monument he thought of as “Liberty Enlightening the World”: Bedloe’s Island, just outside New York Harbor.
Many Americans, including many in Congress, weren’t so sure that we needed a gigantic French statue and didn’t feel like paying for its pedestal. In 1883, Congress voted down an attempt to provide $100,000 toward the construction of the pedestal; New York was also less than forthcoming with money. This infuriated Joseph Pulitzer, who, along with his star reporter Nellie Bly, is one of the major players in this engaging novel, which is ultimately about getting the words of Lazarus’s poem onto the statue’s pedestal by hook or by crook, or a little of both.
Pulitzer, a Hungarian-Jewish immigrant, was disgusted by the penuriousness of the American public and tried to raise money to build the pedestal through his newspaper, the New York World. Pulitzer’s fundraising simultaneously helped to build readership for the World, whose few thousand readers had grown to 100,000 by the time the statue was safely ensconced on Bedloe’s (now Liberty) Island in 1886. His efforts included a competition in which important poets contributed a poem addressing the statue and the liberty it symbolized.
One of those poets, Emma Lazarus, was a Jewish-American activist and Zionist who fought against the anti-Semitism of the time. Her actions aroused the anger of powerful men who would do anything to those who tried to interfere with their plans—perhaps even murder them. Lazarus also drew the ire of her sisters, who disapproved of her Zionism and her crusade on behalf of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, whom they considered to be of inferior stock. After Lazarus’s premature death, they tried to keep some of her poems, including “The New Colossus,” from publication. But would they have tried to harm Lazarus, or hasten her death?
Interestingly, when Lazarus was asked to contribute a poem to the statue fund, she at first refused, explaining that she didn’t write commemorative poems. Yet when she thought about the mistreatment of immigrants—especially Jews from Eastern Europe—she changed her mind, and in 1883 she produced “The New Colossus,” whose lines would become an integral part of the statue and would arguably be read by more people than any other American poem.
Marshall Goldberg’s story zigzags through this era, running from murder to blackmail to fraud to passion, even to lesbian intrigue—most of it involving the sleuthing efforts of Nellie Bly, known for her exposé of conditions at the Bellevue Asylum for Women and her reporting trip around the world in imitation of Phileas Fogg.
In Goldberg’s story, Pulitzer, before approving Bly’s around-the-world trip, wants her to find out if Emma Lazarus has been murdered—not to prove murder, but to blackmail Lazarus’s sisters in order to get at her poem “The New Colossus.” When Bly is first given the assignment, she, like everyone, believes that Lazarus died from cancer in 1887. She soon learns, however, that some think Lazarus was poisoned—and after dealing with the likes of Henry Hilton, Jay Gould, and other Gilded Age magnates, Bly begins to agree with the poisoning theory. Goldberg sets Bly on a merry chase, during which she even falls in love with a Dr. Frank Ingram, a real person who may or may not have saved her from the depredations of Bellevue.
While many of the efforts of Pulitzer and Bly recorded here are factual, not all elements of the plot are true: The New Colossus ends with historical notes that help to flesh out the era but don’t distinguish between the actual and invented parts of the story. Some readers may wish to consult Esther Schor’s Emma Lazarus (2006) and Brooke Kroeger’s Nellie Bly (1994) in order to ground Goldberg’s blend of history and invention.
Diane Scharper teaches English at Towson University.