It’s easy to forget that history was once someone’s everyday reality.
There are moments, when I’m writing an historical novel, that it really hits me just how terrifying it must have been to live in a certain place, at a certain time.
I had one such moment when I was writing Loving Liberty Levine, a novel about Russian immigrants coming to New York just before the First World War.
The background was very familiar to me from old black and white movies set on the Lower East Side and documentaries on the History channel. But this time, imagining it through the eyes of my characters, as they first glimpsed the Statue of Liberty through the fog after weeks and weeks at sea, I had some sense of how they must have felt.
They all held to a dream, encapsulated in those now famous lines found at the base of the Liberty statue:
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”
Between 1892 and 1924, the torch in the famous statue’s right hand in upper New York Bay represented a beacon of real hope to millions outside the fledgling nation. Without this escape route, many would have died, few would have escaped misery and destitution.
It’s been calculated that almost half of the United States population can trace their heritage to the ragtag ancestors standing in line at Ellis Island immigration station with their cardboard suitcases and little else.
The Ellis Island museum has oral histories from many of those people, including details of the ships they arrived on, which have all been made available online.
To understand who we are, we have to know where we came from, so Ellis Island and its archives are a priceless resource. If you live in the US, you may well find the stories of your distant relatives recorded there.
Here’s the link if you’re interested: https://www.statueofliberty.org/
It meant that the hardest thing for me about researching Loving Liberty Levine was knowing when to stop, there was such a wealth of information and anecdotes.
And those famous lines: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”
Where did they come from?
They were taken from a sonnet – ‘The New Colossus’ – which was written to help raise money for the Liberty monument construction. It was penned by Emma Lazarus, in 1883, and then forgotten for almost 20 years. The work was finally mounted on a bronze plaque inside the pedestal in 1903.
In the end, the gamble of mass immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century paid off for the nation as well as for the desperate dreamers that arrived on its shores. Which of the following American icons do you think owe their existence to immigrants, or their descendants?
“God Bless America”
“Born in the USA”
The Pultizer Prize
Yosemite National Park
Yes, that’s right. All of them.