Two relics of Liberty’s multistage birth are particularly striking. In March 1883, Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt appeared at her own ball dressed as “Electric Light,” with real diamonds sparkling on her white satin ball gown. She may have been thinking of Edison’s lighting of downtown Manhattan in November 1882; in a carefully posed photograph she holds aloft what seems to be a shining electric torch, as if she were an elaborate lamp stand. But she is also unmistakably personifying the Statue of Liberty—whose disembodied arm and torch had been jutting from the ground in Madison Square Park since 1876, awaiting installation.
In the same year as the Vanderbilt ball, a Jewish poet named Emma Lazarus, who would die before the statue’s unveiling, wrote a poem to aid the construction fund. Eventually affixed to the base of the statue on a bronze plaque in 1903, the poem, “The New Colossus,” became an inseparable part of the icon it helped construct. The writer created the more lasting tribute, but both Vanderbilt and Lazarus grasped the visual and symbolic importance of the woman’s arm brandishing an electric light.
Lazarus’s poem begins by contrasting the male Colossus of Rhodes, between whose legs ships are said to have sailed into an ancient Greek harbor, to the “mighty woman with a torch” who welcomes outcasts to modern New York. Self-consciously shunning the “storied pomp” of antiquity, the “Mother of Exiles” offers refuge to the weary and unwanted masses of the Old World:
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-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Lazarus uses an old-world poetic form, the Italian sonnet, to sing a new form of maternalistic love song to the downtrodden of the earth. With a Whitmanesque inclusiveness, Liberty offers “world-wide welcome” and a place to “breathe free.” But given the battered condition of her guests, we have to imagine Liberty as cast in the caring mold of Florence Nightingale, an earlier “Lady with the Lamp,” as she was reverentially called. Liberty presumably stands ready to nurse her huddled immigrant children into political health.
Bartholdi had planned that “Liberty Enlightening the World”—his original title for the statue—would hoist a gilded torch in recognition of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment ideals that spurred the revolutions inboth the United States and France. But Lazarus and her readers knew that the more “American” take on these historical principles would be to break with the past. They would signal the country’s ingenuity and technological superiority, not to mention its economic opportunities, via electric light. The natural forces of darkness and thunderbolts would be conquered by “a mighty woman with a torch, whose flame / Is the imprisoned lightning.” When President Grover Cleveland spoke at the statue’s dedication, he kept Lazarus’s male/female, Old World/New World contrast in play, as he dwelled on the electric radiance that would eventually unite all nations: “Instead of grasping in her hand thunderbolts of terror and death [like Zeus], she holds aloft the light which illumines the way to man’s enfranchisement. There it shall gleam upon the shore of our sister republic in the East. Reflected and joined with answering rays, a stream of light shall pierce the darkness of ignorance . . . until liberty enlightens the world.”
But the statue itself does not fully square with the democratic meanings draped on its classic form. With her Greco-Roman garb, regal crown, and stolid mien, New York’s Liberty bears little resemblance, for example, to Eugène Delacroix’s bare-breasted, barricade-hurdling revolutionary heroine, Liberty Leading the People. Rather, with her darkness-piercing lamp and record book (it says “July 4, 1776”), the New York statue might be taken for “Liberty Processing the People.” Under Liberty’s watchful eyes, the bureaucratic sifting of “wretched refuse” was carried on with American efficiency day and night, first at Castle Garden and then, beginning in 1892, on nearby Ellis Island, under electric lighting. It is not clear from the poem or the pose whether Liberty will treasure the varied ethnicity of her huddled masses, or simply toss them all into the melting pot for immediate purification. In the glare of Anglo-Saxon racial values, Lazarus’s vision of enlightened inclusivity was mostly turned into an assimilationist bleaching of cultural difference.
President Cleveland spoke of Liberty illuminating “the way to man’s”— not woman’s—“enfranchisement,” but her female character is what makes her receptiveness so immensely audacious. In many ways, Liberty plays off William Holman Hunt’s famous painting The Light of the World (1851–1853), where Christ beckoningly holds a lantern toward the viewer. To show how few heed the Gospel, Hunt positions Christ near a closed
door covered by briars. But the motherly, Greco-Roman Liberty opens her arms to millions every decade. Democracy trumps religion; Liberty’s golden door (and her kingdom, if we would go by the crown) is definitely “of this world.”
It was only a matter of time before someone saw the sexual side of the “Mother of Exiles” and imagined how she got to be a mother in the first place. Near the turn of the twentieth century, the Yiddish poet Melech
Ravitch passed Liberty’s portals, and later he addressed her in a poem called “In the New York Statue of Liberty”:
Woman, hollow, steel giant
With the torch in your right hand high,
You are a golem-woman, with a tinny skin
Taut over a steel skeleton.
Your tin lips have never kissed bread.
Your iron ribs have never cradled a man in bed.
And yet the poet confesses that he loves her, even though “in your veins of wire and steel / Flow electric lights.” Her hollowness is both inhuman and inspiring, since she can take in so many children and lovers: “Oh, is it true, you woman, you freedom, you’re today a fallen woman,” Ravitch asks, realizing that her promiscuity is what makes her so attractive: “And perhaps—perhaps because of that is my love for you so tender and so deep.” Writers have never tired of telling New Yorkers that just as the burning candle draws moths to its flame, so the city draws men and women to their ruin. But the Statue of Liberty lifts her electric beacon to attract the tired, the poor, the huddled masses to their salvation. The Mighty Woman with a Torch may be a fallen woman, one more lady of the (street)lamp after all, but her free and easy ways have only improved her reputation.
William Sharpe is a professor of English at Barnard, specializing in the literature, art, and culture of the modern city, particularly New York. His work has been supported by grants and fellowships from the Mellon Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. His new book on images of New York City at night, called New York Nocturne: The City After Dark in Art, Literature, and Photography, was published in 2008 by Princeton University Press.
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