Mark (Krikorian), thank you for pointing me to that Roberto Suro column about Emma Lazarus’s stinkeroo of a poem. Mr. Suro neglected to mention that Irving Berlin set ”The New Collossus” to music: My kids had to sing it as part of the grade-school summer concert a couple of weeks back, and, although I was momentarily relieved that we’d be getting a three-minute break from all the generic sub-Disney power-ballad Obama Youth Corps pap about celebrating the circle of the power of the hope of changing the world together as one in uniteeeeeee that seems to function as a secular hymnal for today’s educators, my heart sank. “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor” is one of the dreariest tunes Berlin ever composed. From the guy who wrote “White Christmas,” “God Bless America,” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” it’s bizarrely formal and stilted — as if he read through Emma Lazarus’s words and couldn’t hear any music in them.
It was written for a 1949 Broadway musical called Miss Liberty, a fictionalized romance set around an approximation of the historical events. The show ends with the dedication of the statue, and the full company rising and singing “Give Me Your Tired . . . ” — which, of course, never actually happened.
But it is striking to me how effective it’s been as an act of cultural appropriation. The poem is used to invert precisely the meaning of the statue. The actual sculpture is called “Liberty Enlightening The World” and shows her holding a tablet marked “1776.” In other words, it’s not about importing people but about exporting American ideas. And, if you did that effectively, you wouldn’t need to import huddled masses — or, at any rate, not on such a scale. Emma Lazarus has been used to subvert the Statue of Liberty.
By the way, Berlin thought he had another “God Bless America” on his hands with “Give Me Your Tired . . .” and was planning to set up a big foundation to direct all its royalties to charity. “This is the greatest goddamn idea anyone’s ever had,” he’d say to his friends, and then he’d sing the song, and they’d sit there not quite getting it. He blew it. He should have written one about liberty enlightening the world.
Give me your tired and your poor, but please, no Emma Lazarus poems.