Maternalism and American Exceptional In Lazarus’ “The New Colossus”

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!”

Written in 1883 to commemorate the State of Liberty, Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” helps reify our discussion of American Exceptionalism. The poem was immortalized in 1903 when it was engraved on the statue’s lower pedestal. Its placement upon such prime real estate creates a relatively unique intersection of literature and international policy – the sponsorship of New York City governance transforms this poem from an exclusively literary object into a state-sponsored affirmation of America’s (ostensible) relation to the world.

The poem attempts to place America outside of a traditional imperial framework by defining America in maternalistic terms. If the international relations of other countries are dominated by a testosterone-fueled desire to conqueror with “limbs astride from land to land,” the Statue of liberty is a “mother of exiles” – a compassionate protector of the homeless. Possessing both “mild eyes” and an ability to “command / The air-bridged harbor that the twin cities frame,” Lazarus imbues the statue (and thus America) with a latent power that is held in check by a mild, “welcome[ing]” countenance.

In this sense, the poem is reminiscent of Sarah Jewett’s “The Foreigner.” Both works strive to exempt America from the pernicious effects of being a world power by framing America as a maternalistic nation – a country devoted to protecting oppressed peoples of the world, a country with none of the imperial intentions that define those other superpowers.

It is thus with the most bitter irony that the New-York State Woman Suffrage Assocation was denied attendance at the Statue of Liberty’s unveiling. To retaliate, the group “hired a boat for themselves and without asking anybody’s leave took up one of the most favorable positions for viewing the ceremonies on the island.” If the governors of New York were not willing to allow the Women’s Suffrage Association to attend the unveiling of this ostensibly maternalistic statue, it is dubious that Lazarus’ maternalistic ideal represents the reality of American ideology.


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