Emerson, Emma Lazarus and the Jews

On June 13, Harvard University Press published a luxuriantly definitive Variorum edition of poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson, which may cast light on a still-remembered episode in American Jewish literary history. The poet Emma Lazarus, whose “New Colossus” adorns the Statue of Liberty, knew Emerson personally, and her admiring essay “Emerson’s Personality” was collected in a compelling 2002 anthology from Broadview Press.

After years of receiving Emerson’s praise and advice for her poems, Lazarus was nevertheless omitted from his landmark 1874 anthology, “Parnassus.” Feeling shocked and betrayed, Lazarus wrote to her erstwhile mentor Emerson:

Still, Lazarus continued to visit Emerson, as an 1876 letter from Ellen Tucker Emerson, the poet’s daughter, reports with patronizing humor, describing Lazarus as a “real unconverted Jew (who had no objection to calling herself one, and talked freely about ‘Our Church’ and ‘we Jews,’) and hear how Old Testament sounds to her, & find she has been brought up to keep the Law, and the Feast of the Passover, and the Day of Atonement. The interior view was much more interesting than I could have imagined.”

Joking contempt seems to sum up not only his daughter’s thoughts, but Emerson’s lifelong attitude towards Jews. As Leonard Dinnerstein’s “Antisemitism in America” from Oxford University Press suggests, noting that Emerson “regarded Jews as usurers.” The invaluable new Harvard Variorum edition contains “William Rufus and the Jew,” a poem written by Emerson in his twenties, printed in an 1829 poetry anthology, “unsigned and never-acknowledged…[but] Emerson’s authorship is certain,” state the Variorum editors.

Previously anthologized, notably in a 1996 Library of America volume, “William Rufus and the Jew” is a clumsily jesting account of how King William II of England (known as William Rufus, as described in Albert Montefiore Hyamson’s 1908 “History of the Jews in England”) price-gouged a Jew for a failed attempt to compel his converted son to return to Judaism. Doubtless influenced by Shakespeare’s Shylock, Emerson’s poem (see below), inspired by a passage in David Hume’s “History of England,” displays an anti-Semitism which was shopworn even in 1829.

A hero of American letters, Emerson once wrote in an essay: “That which takes my fancy most, in the heroic class, is the good-humor and hilarity they exhibit.” “William Rufus and the Jew” suggests that Emerson’s hilarity, as Lazarus intuited, was leavened with a decided degree of contempt for Jewish people.

“William Rufus and the Jew”

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Emerson, Emma Lazarus and the Jews

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