Rebuilding the Colossus

August 5: On this day in 1884 the cornerstone was laid for the pedestal of New York City’s Statue of Liberty. Much of the rest of the money needed would be raised by Joseph Pulitzer through his campaign in the New York World for the penny-donations of the poor, but one of the most historic fundraisers was an upper crust affair with a more literary slant. This was the Pedestal Art Loan Exhibition, to which Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and others had donated manuscripts for auction, and for which poet Emma Lazarus wrote “The New Colossus.” Lazarus died 1887, a year after the Statue was erected; her poem fetched $1500, but it gathered dust for years until discovered in an old portfolio of Pedestal Exhibition contributions. Lobbying by the poem’s admirers had the famous last lines (“Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free….”) inscribed on a second-story landing by the turn of the century, and in 1945 the entire poem was installed at the base.

The Colossus of Rhodes was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, a symbol of power and domination for the half-century it stood and an object of wonder for the centuries that it lay in gigantic pieces strewn about the harbor. Emma Lazarus was a champion of “the colossal experiment” that was America; she was also a champion of its home-grown literary tradition, and feminist-minded. When her friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson omitted her “late-born and woman-souled” verse from his poetry anthology she chewed him out for playing the patriarch. Her “New Colossus” is emphatic about America avoiding the old male swagger:

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….


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.