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In 1903, a famous poem called The New Colossus written by an American Jewish poet was engraved upon the Statue of Liberty. The author of the sonnet, Madam Emma Lazarus, is a renowned poet who lived from 1849 to 1887. She offered the poem as a donation to raise funds to construct a pedestal on which the statue was placed. This literary work transformed not only the entire essence of the statue but also the meaning of the United States of America as a country. The poem gave hope to the thousands of immigrants who were arriving in America looking forward to the numerous benefits they were promised to receive. The current paper attempts to analyze the meaning of the poem and discuss whether the nation kept its promises to the newcomers.
The statue of liberty is one of the famous landmarks that exist in the world today. Two countries, France and the United States of America, devoted efforts to erect the statue on a small island known as Liberty Island in the Upper New York Bay. The original intention of the statue was to serve as a monumental commemoration of the long-lasting friendship between these countries (Portes, Alejandro, and Rubén). However, over the years, the connotation of the statue of liberty changed, and The New Colossus poem played a crucial role in this transformation.
Meaning of the Poem
Typically, the poem describes the statue of liberty and how much it welcomes the immigrants. The author talks about the ‘Colossus’ referring to the ancient wonder of the world, the intimidating Colossus of Rhodes, and contrasting it with the ‘new colossus’, in this case the statue of liberty. Furthermore, its affable greeting of the immigrants arriving in the harbor is illustrated in the poem by the phrase “Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame” (Lazarus). The phrase “Give me your tired, your poor” symbolically serves as a beacon of hope for these European people thus promising a better life in the United States (Lazarus).
The poem announces America’s separation from the native world which implies the compassion, freedom and enlightenment that the nation represents. Further to this, the phrase “Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” criticizes the native world and its disregard to the welfare of the people. The statue appears to be the voice of the poem and appeals to the subjugated by calling them to a life of independence and opportunity by stating “I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” (Lazarus). This symbolizes the American spirit of liberty as a new world.
The Diversity of Immigrants’ Experiences Compared to the Poem
Despite the attractive promises depicted in the poem, the immigrants from all the different European countries received various reactions. Not all the immigrants were treated equally after their arrival in the United States. Some of them experienced pleasant benefits that were reflected in the poem while others were met harshly. Such scenario was attributed to the change in political and economic condition that were prevailing at that time. Over the course of time, new acts and agreements regarding immigration were developed and implemented. As the result, both the immigrants who were already in the country as well as those who planned to immigrate to the US were affected.
How America Lived Up to the Poem’s Promises
Groups that immigrated and settled in North America, mainly the Chinese and the Italians, gained access to cheap land and further enjoyed the liberty of enterprise. Those who possessed skills in craftsmanship, shipbuilding, and fishing managed to find jobs that offered a considerable wage. In addition, they were able to establish their institutions and exercise an unrestricted authority given their independence of resources. All the above mentioned played rather important part in developing modern US economy (Hillstrom). The example is the Bank of America, which was founded by the Italians-Americans and is among numerous other prominent companies that were successful due to the expertise of the migrants in the US business sector.
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Many of the immigrants moved from their home countries in order to escape religious oppression. For example, the Jews experienced continuous persecution in both Austria and Russia on the basis of their religion. Therefore, they tried to find religious freedom in the United States. However, some of them found it much favorable to preserve and practice their religious beliefs. It should be mentioned that the English Pilgrims were the earliest to arrive followed by the Germans. Each of these groups established their religious identities without peripheral intervention. The high number of religious faiths within the United States today is an evidence of the religious autonomy that the early immigrants were able to exploit.
Some immigrants also moved to the United States in search of a better life for themselves and their families. Immigration was by no means cheap and therefore, many of the poor families had to work hard for it. Germans, as well as the British, who could not afford to cross the ocean, achieved this as indenture servants which implied that an employer would acquire an indenture contract from a sea captain who would furnish their arrival to the United States. The contract also stated that these immigrants would work for a fixed number of years with no payment to gain their liberty later. However, they were provided with the basic human needs as well as undergone the required training. As soon as the contract expired, many of them were able to work independently as most of the German-Americans became landowners themselves.
Cultural and Ethnic Identity
As promised by the poem, the immigrants had the freedom to conduct their lives as they pleased. This implied the ability to maintain their ethnic identities and freedom to exploit their diverse cultures. For instance, the Chinese, similarly to the European groups, brought with them their cultures, customs, language, and social institutions which they could exercise without restrictions. As such, when they arrived, the immigrants of the same origins found themselves in specific locations organized in neighborhoods. The success of such circumstances is evident even today with the existence of China Town that mainly consists of Chinese American population who remained there for the most of the early 19th century.
How America Failed to Live Up to the Poem’s Promises
Harsh Working Condition
Perhaps the most rare subject of consideration, the working conditions that most of the immigrants who managed to find employment were forced to endure were terrible. This entailed continuous work on menial jobs at minimal wages. Such situation was attributed to the race for employment and the high inflow of unskilled labor into the US. The majority of the workers were Italians, with about eighty percent of their immigrant population employed in the cities as unskillful laborers. A good example is the work force employed at the Chicago Union Stock Yards, most of whom were Lithuanian immigrants. The factory was called ‘the jungle’ – this title fully depicted the dreadful working conditions experienced, as well as precarious food practices in their slaughterhouses. All the above mentioned conditions were contrary to what was promised by the US according to the poem.
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The literary work portrays the United States of America as welcoming and accepting people from diverse European backgrounds to a so-called free and fair ‘new world’. Initially, all the immigrants were pleasantly welcomed into the country. However, this ‘new world’ failed to fulfill the promises made, as exhibited by the Chinese exclusion act among the others. It prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers into the Unites States. By far such action was recognized as a form of ethnic exclusion as it affected only the Chinese population of immigrants. The move was mainly attributed to the high influx of Chinese laborers to the northern part of America which led to the decrease of the wage levels. This population was no longer welcomed as the reactions to the low wage levels were reflected in public outrage. Furthermore, the imposition of the same act on other immigrants from different countries was implemented later.
Harsh Reception of Immigrants
Contrary to the promised acceptance to all, more and more acts were being passed by the American government thus imposing restrictions upon the immigrants. The naturalization act was authorized by the government which dictated which type of the immigrants the US government preferred. As such, only the white and African immigrants were liable for citizenship in the country which affected almost all the European groups and was followed by further restrictions in terms of land ownership and state laws. Soon, the laws began restricting the entry of specific persons into the country such as the mentally ill, those diseased as well as contracted laborers. Such acts undermined the promise symbolized by the statue of liberty calling out to the oppressed masses.
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The poem suggests that the country would overlook the differences exhibited by the people from different European countries. Such claim insinuated a diverse environment that was capable of accommodating people from numerous diverse backgrounds. However, as these masses streamed into the country in their large numbers, the differences became rather apparent, especially those concerning race, religion as well as ethnicity.
The above mentioned resulted in a struggle to accommodate such diversity which proved difficult. Assimilation appeared to be a much better alternative and, therefore, numerous immigrants would be coerced to conform to the dominant society so as to access the same opportunities as were available for the Americans. Although their distinct physical features and languages made the process complicated, most of the immigrants, such as the Chinese, Russians, and Indians, struggled to assimilate at the expense of their ethnic identity.
Despite all the matters, the immigrant groups were initially accepted well by the United States and for some time enjoyed the benefits that were promised to them. As the time passed, political, social, as well as economic condition, continued to changing. Different reactions from the American government constantly aroused with an aim to control the problematic situations that appeared as more and more immigrants came into the country. However, numerous achievements from the onset of immigration are evident in the United States today. Diverse ethnic groups still exist within the country thus proving that their efforts to build an integrated society were not futile.
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The essence of the poem being engraved and placed on the statue of liberty gave the monument a new significance which is not only in expressions of the words of the poem but also in the significance of the national heritage. Immigrants from all parts of the world who arrived at the harbor would view the statue as a symbol of hope and improved livelihood they were to experience. To these apprehensive newcomers, the poem represented the opportunities that the land offered to the rest of the world, including the renewed hope and the conviction of opening a new chapter of their lives in the ‘new world’.