This season, two unusual historical installations about writers are small treasures.
The artistic pursuits of Mark Twain, the great American writer and humorist, and Emma Lazarus, the first important Jewish American poet, are celebrated, respectively, at the New-York Historical Society (NYHS) and the American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS). Both exhibitions creatively bring archival materials to the public.
While I haven’t been able to verify whether Lazarus and Twain actually met in person, it’s clear they moved in similar 19th-century New York social circles, and they shared an interest in Palestine.
Annie Polland, executive director of AJHS, confirms that Lazarus regularly attended literary clubs and salons where Twain was also known to visit. When Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” was written for a portfolio of sketches and essays auctioned off in December 1883 to raise money for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty — the portfolio also included a letter from Twain.
At the NYHS’ “Mark Twain and the Holy Land,” curators have pieced together compelling documents to tell the story of Twain’s 1867 grand tour of Europe and the Holy Land, which inspired “The Innocents Abroad, Or The New Pilgrims’ Progress.” This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of the book, which sold more copies during Twain’s lifetime than any of his other books.
The original documents — many from the Shapell Manuscript Collection, based in Herzliya, Israel, and Los Angeles – include manuscript pages and letters in his handwriting; a receipt for travel on the steamship Quaker City, which carried Twain and his fellow travelers; and a ship manifest, along with photographs, stereographs, paintings, a signed portrait of Twain and objects like a board game inspired by the book, “The Amusing Game of Innocence Abroad,” and a video with rare footage of Twain back home.
Mark Twain was hardly an innocent, but a jester and reporter, filing stories about the trip for a California newspaper. In recounting his adventures, he pokes fun at himself and his fellow travelers, who were mostly men, middle-class Protestants eager to see the Holy Land. Twain was 32 when he traveled abroad; he published “Innocents Abroad” two years later. (Lazarus was 34 when she wrote “The New Colossus.”)
Benjamin Shapell, the founder and president of the Shapell Manuscript Foundation, explains in an email why he was drawn to collecting the Mark Twain material: “Maybe it was my surprise that Twain went to Palestine at all when these kinds of excursions were unheard of.”
He continues, “Twain’s excursion to the Holy Land stayed with him his entire life and he remained in touch with a number of his fellow ‘pilgrims,’ as he called them. He admired Jews, was riveted by the Dreyfus Affair years later, shockingly observed anti-Semitism first-hand in Vienna, a lot of which found its way into his 1899 essay ‘Concerning the Jews,’ where Herzl (whom he met in Europe) is mentioned on a number of occasions. You will not find any anti-Semitic references in any of his novels or writings, very uncommon in the late 19th century.”
He adds, “A few years back we produced a documentary on Twain’s trip to Palestine, so I was always referring back to ‘Innocents Abroad.’ We called the film ‘Dreamland,’ which Twain meant as a sort of disparaging nickname. Before travel to the Holy Land became common, people had an image in their minds of Palestine being a paradise because of the Bible they studied in Sunday school but the reality was something altogether opposite — a fantasy rooted in disappointment, driven in part by the abject poverty that abounded in this neglected Ottoman backwater.”
Shapell explains that 15 years ago, the foundation was instrumental in discovering the actual building where Twain stayed in Jerusalem by matching old photographs with the building’s interior and exterior today. The exhibition includes photos of the old hotel then and as it stands today, a religious school in the Old City.
“It was in this hotel where Twain wrote his only personal letter during his entire five-month voyage [on display at the exhibit], ordering and designing a Bible for his mother with motifs from the Old Testament [also on display].”
Among its archives, the AJHS has the original handwritten version of Lazarus’ “The New Colossus,” her classic sonnet now engraved on the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. Not far from the Union Square brownstone where she wrote its well-known lines, “Give me your tired, your poor…,” the AJHS has recreated a detailed replica of her sitting room.
The exhibit has added relevance as Lazarus’ poem has been under attack of late, with Ken T. Cuccinelli, a top immigration official in the Trump administration, tweaking the lines of the poem in a Trumpian way, to limit immigration.
Polland explains that she found that most people know little about Lazarus. Many assume that this activist for immigrants was an immigrant herself, but she was a fifth-generation American, born to a wealthy Jewish family. She died young, at age 38, in 1887.
Fitted with period pieces, paintings and the books she read, the room looks as though Lazarus might have just stepped out. A shawl is draped over a shelf, a gold-edged tea cup sits on her desk and crumpled-up papers in the garbage resemble a writer’s early drafts. Visitors are invited to touch the books — prominent are works by Heine and George Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda,” along with copies of Century Magazine — and sit in the settees and low chairs.
The inspiration of Polland, the room was designed with great charm by Pamela Keech, who also designed the apartments at the Tenement Museum. Polland explains that since there were no images of Lazarus’ sitting room, Keech looked at paintings of the sitting rooms of other distinguished New Yorkers and also sourced Lazarus’ letters for details. Her team looked online for antique furniture, and when members of a Jewish family selling vintage pieces in Kentucky learned that the AJHS was interested, they donated a number of pieces to the project.
At the center of the room, a very modern book — illuminated with digital folios projected as the pages are turned — tells the story of the poet’s life and the context of her work. The narrative includes young students reading their own poems as part of a national contest to write lines for the pedestal. Plans for the space include poetry readings, book groups, discussions and other programs.
“One of the things we show,” Polland explains, “is that Emma was often criticized for her ideas — they were seen as too modern. For example, she developed a strong belief in the importance of a Jewish home in Palestine, years before the term ‘Zionism’ came about. When she wrote about it in The American Hebrew [magazine], both Reform and Orthodox leaders criticized her. So in many ways, she was ahead of her time.”
She continues, “Emma drew upon her Jewish identity — how it connected her to history, and how in turn that broader understanding of peoplehood connected her and made her responsible for other Jews. She took that particular experience then, and forged a stronger sense of American identity, and America’s responsibility to its immigrants. The sitting room, a place where she worked out her ideas, is really important for us to understand how her American and Jewish identities came together in really astounding and creative ways.”
Lazarus, who began learning Hebrew in her early 30s, wrote in 1882, “Every Jew has to crack for himself this hard nut of his particular position in a non-Jewish community.”
“Emma’s Sitting Room” is on display through 2022 at the Center for Jewish History, 15 W. 16th St., cjh.org. “Mark Twain and the Holy Land” is on display through Feb. 2, 2020 at the New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West.