Why Gibran Khalil Gibran Matters:
Gibran Khalil Gibran (1883-1931) is Lebanon/Syria’s greatest poet, and one of the world’s most popular poets of all times, ranking only behind Shakespeare and Lao-tsu. Gibran's The Prophet sold 9 million copies in the United States, tens of millions across the globe. Gibran was a literary contradiction. Stylistically he echoed Walt Whitman’s freewheeling defiance of convention. Thematically, The Prophet is spiritual self-help that celebrates conventional thinking, a genre the likes of Steven Covey and Deepak Chopra have put to immense profit, primarily to themselves, but at great debt to Gibran.
Early Life in Lebanon :
Gibran was born Gibran Khalil Gibran Ibn Mkhaiil bin Saad on Jan. 6, 1883, to a poor, pious but also slightly crooked family of Maronite Christians in Bcharre, or Bcharri, a northern Lebanese village waylaid between towering mountains and gaping valleys: contrast early made its mark on Gibran’s character. His mother Kamilah, who married frequently, encouraged priests to educate her son while his biological father, a drinker, gambler and tax collector, ended up in prison for embezzlement. Ruined by her charmless third husband, Gibran’s mother and her four children sailed for the United States on June 25, 1895.
Kamilah Gibran settled the family in Boston’s South End, went to work as a peddler, and within a year had three children working for pay and one going to school for the first time in his life—Gibran. But Gibran’s earliest artistic influence was the bohemian, and slightly deviant, Fred Holland Day (he liked to photograph young street boys nude), who introduced Gibran to the poetry of the Romantics and the Symbolists and imbued Gibran with a sense of exotic self-importance. Perhaps worried about his dalliances, Gibran’s mother sent him back to Beirut for college in 1898.
Beirut, 1898-1902 :
The college years Gibran spent in Lebanon were significant for two reasons. First, Gibran’s artistic identity was born in the form of a literary magazine he founded with a classmate. Gibran’s painting also developed. Second, Gibran came face to face with Lebanon’s fractious, sectarian political landscape. Even though the place was still part of Syria, itself part of the Ottoman Empire, the Lebanese character was such that it never kept its differences hidden. Gibran’s reaction was the adoption of an all-purpose spiritual outlook that shunned differences in favor of a vaguer, non-denominational idealism.
Gibran’s mother and two siblings died within a year of his return to Boston. Two women would subsequently take care of him: His sister Marianna, and, beginning in 1908, Mary Haskell, the wealthy, liberal headmistress of a school who would bankroll him, send him to Paris to learn painting, pine for his love all her life, edit and sometimes rewrite his books, including “The Prophet,” and suffer Gibran’s chronic coldness. Haskell and Gibran had an ambiguous sexual relationship that couldn’t rival Gibran’s many other dalliances. In 1911, Gibran moved to New York—alone.
New York City and “The Prophet”:
Gibran lived at 51 West 10th Street in Manhattan for the rest of his life, first at Haskell’s expense, then from the proceeds of The Prophet
, published in 1923 by Alfred A. Knopf, who derisively referred to Gibran’s following as “a cult” (even the book made Knopf millions). The book is a slight compendium of misty, fructose wisdom about love, marriage, children, clothes, pain, friendship, beauty, death and other Big Themes rendered in the nuggety sermons of a holy man about to leave the place of exile he’s lived in for 12 years and return to his ancestral home.
There is no driving philosophy in The Prophet, no stylistic shock or awe, though its wild popularity is perhaps owed to what critic Joan Acocella described in The New Yorker as “a warm, smooth, interconfessional soup that was perfect for twentieth-century readers, many of whom longed for the comforts of religion but did not wish to pledge allegiance to any church, let alone to any deity who might have left a record of how he wanted them to behave.” The book’s popularity soared in the 1960s, and remains entrenched in the New Age canon.
Gibran Beyond “The Prophet” :
Popular as he was with readers, Gibran was generally shunned by the literary establishment and often ignored by critics. He wrote many books, most of them slight, sermonizing imitations of The Prophet
, none of them as popular. To this day, few biographies have been written about him—most notably, Robin Waterfield’s Prophet: The Life and Times of Khalil Gibran
(1998). The literary critic Edmund Wilson, who chronicled the New York literary scene down to its after-hour hangovers, referred to him only once, and mistakenly so, as “Gibran the Persian.”
Khalil Gibran fell ill at the beginning of 1931 with cirrhosis of the liver. His sister Marianna was at his side when he died on April 10, 1931. The New York Times, devoting all of three paragraphs to his obituary, referred to him in a headline as a “Native of Palestine.”
Gibran summed up his notion of ancestry in a bitter poem called “My Countrymen,” and whose final lines read:
I hate you, my countrymen, because
You hate glory and greatness. I
Despise you because you despise
Yourselves. I am your enemy, for
You refuse to realize that you are
The enemies of the goddesses.
Gibran on Americanization and Integration:
Khalil Gibran championed Americanization in a multicultural sense: embrace the new country without abandoning the heritage of the old. In a 1919 article for Fatat-Boston, an Arab publication in Boston, he called on “the children of the first generation Arabs to proudly preserve their heritage in their quest for citizenship.” In a later article in Syrian World, he wrote: “It is to stand before the towers of New York, Washington, Chicago and San Francisco saying in your heart, ‘I am the descendant of a people that builded (sic.)Damascus and Byblos, and Tyre and Sidon, and Antioch, and now I am here to build with you, and with a will.’ It is to be proud of being an American, but it is also to be proud that your fathers and mothers came from a land upon which God laid his gracious hand and raised his messengers. Young Americans of Syrian origin, I believe in you.”