Touro cenotaphs in the colonial Jewish Burial Ground
The Cemetery in Literature
In the summer of 1852, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, then serving as Harvard’s Smith Professor of Modern Languages, brought his family from Cambridge, Massachusetts down to Newport for a vacation. While walking the local streets, he became entranced with the old Jewish cemetery and prevailed upon the now elderly Gould to let him enter. In his diary he states:
Here we are, in the clover-fields on the cliff, at Hazard’s house; near the beach, with the glorious sea unrolling its changing billows before us. Here, in truth, the sea speaks Italian; at Nahant it speaks Norse. Went this morning into the Jewish burying-ground, with a polite old gentleman who keeps the key. It is a shady nook, at the corner of two dusty, frequented streets, with an iron fence and a granite gateway, ....
.... Over one of the graves grows a weeping willow, - a grandchild of the willow over Napoleon’s grave in St. Helena.
Engraving of Emma Lazarus Longfellow was not the only poet inspired by the Synagogue and its burial ground. Emma Lazarus, best known for her sonnet “The New Colossus” that adorns the Statue of Liberty, also frequented Newport at her family’s summer home. In 1867, at the age of eighteen, she was inspired to write “In the Jewish Synagogue of Newport.” Her family, leading members of the Jewish community, were also well assimilated into local culture and were well respected outside of Jewish circles. Emma, although welcomed and totally accepted in the Christian world by her peers, strongly identified herself as a Jew.
Cemetery view showing Sephardic style graves
While both Longfellow and Lazarus wrote of the lost community in Newport, they did so from very different perspectives. Longfellow wrote with the cynicism of age and as an observer outside of to the community. Lazarus addressed the same subject from the perspective of youth and as one who was raised within the Jewish community.
Ultimately Lazarus developed a direct correspondence with Longfellow. Following his death in 1882, she eulogized him in The American Hebrew (4 April 1882) commenting on his poem about Newport.