Lebanese writer and artist Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931) influenced modern Arabic literature and composed inspirational pieces in English, including The Prophet.
Kahlil Gibran, baptized Gibran Khalil Gibran, the oldest child of Khalil Gibran and his wife Kamila Rahme, was born January 6, 1883, in Besharri, Lebanon, then part of Syria and the Ottoman Turkish Empire. His childhood in the isolated village beneath Mt. Lebanon included few material comforts and he had no formal early education. However, he received a strong spiritual heritage.
Surrounded for centuries by members of the Moslem and Druze religions, residents of Maronite Christian villages like Besharri evolved a mystical philosophy of life. His later work was influenced by legends and biblical stories handed down for generations in the scenic region near the ancient Cedars of Lebanon.
Seeking a better future, the family, except for their father, moved to America in 1895. They joined relatives and shared a tenement in South Boston, Massachusetts. Kamila Gibran sold lace to support her four children and opened a small dry goods store. While registering for public school, Gibran's name was shortened and changed.
His life changed when a settlement house art teacher noticed his artistic skill. Florence Peirce with Jessie Fremont Beale, a philanthropist, arranged for Gibran's introduction to Fred Holland Day in December 1896.
A Boston patron of literature and fine arts who was also an "artistic" photographer, Day used Gibran, his younger sisters Marianna and Sultana, half-brother Peter, and Kamila as models. After discovering Gibran's aptitude for literature and art, Day proclaimed him a "natural genius" and became his mentor. Gibran designed book illustrations, sketched portraits, and met Day's friends. He then went to Beirut, Lebanon, in 1898 to attend Madrasat-al-Hikmah, a Maronite college where he studied Arabic literature and cofounded a literary magazine.
Returning to Boston in 1902, he experienced family tragedy. During 1902 and 1903 Kamila, Sultana, and Peter died from disease. Marianna, a seamstress, supported both herself and Gibran, who resumed his art work and renewed his friendship with Day.
In 1903 Josephine Preston Peabody, a poetess and friend, arranged for an exhibition of his work at Wellesley College; in 1904 Gibran and another artist exhibited their work at Day's Boston studio. Here, Gibran met Mary Elizabeth Haskell, who became his patron and tutor in English for two decades. The owner of Miss Haskell's School for Girls and, later, headmistress of the Cambridge School, she believed he would have an outstanding future. She aided several talented, needy people and was a major factor in Gibran's success as an English writer and artist.
From 1908 to 1910 Haskell provided funds for Gibran to study painting and drawing in Paris. Before going to France, he studied English literature with her and had an essay, "al-Musiqa" (1905), published by the Arabic immigrant press in New York City.
Diverse influences, including Boston's literary world, the English Romantic poets, mystic William Blake, and philosopher Nietzsche, combined with his Besharri experience, shaped Gibran's artistic and literary career. Although his drawings depict idealized, romantic figures, the optimistic philosophy of his later writing resulted from a painful personal evolution. Understanding Gibran's attitude towards authority gives greater insight to his work in English.
Gibran opposed Ottoman Turkish rule and the Maronite Church's strict social control. After "Spirits Rebellious," an Arabic poem, was published in 1908, Gibran was called a reformer and received widespread recognition in the Arabic world. Other Arabic writings, including "Broken Wings" (1912), were published in New York where a large Syrian-Lebanese community flourished. He became the best known of the "Mahjar poets" or immigrant Arabic writers. His most respected Arabic poem is the "The Procession" (1919). He was president of Arrabitah, a literary society founded in New York in 1920 to infuse "a new life in modern Arabic literature."
Gibran sought and won acceptance from New York's artistic and literary world. His first work in English appeared in 1918 when The Madman was published by the American firm of Alfred A. Knopf. The sometimes cynical parables and poems on justice, freedom, and God are illustrated by three of Gibran's drawings. In 1919 Knopf published Gibran's Twenty Drawings; in 1920 The Forerunner appeared. Each book sold a few hundred copies. In October 1923 The Prophet was published; it sold over 1,000 copies in three months.
The slim volume of parables, illustrated with Gibran's drawings, is one of America's all-time best selling books; its fame spreads by word of mouth. Critics call it overly sentimental. By 1986, however, almost eight million copies—all hard-bound editions—had been sold in the United States alone. Several of his other works enjoyed substantial sales. Gibran bequeathed his royalties to Besharri; ironically, the gift caused years of feuding among village families.
Gibran's views on the brotherhood of man and man's unity with nature appeal primarily to young and old readers. The parables present a refreshing, new way of looking at the world that has universal appeal. By 1931 The Prophet had been translated into 20 languages. In the 1960s it reached new heights of popularity with American college students.
Although in failing health, Gibran completed two more books in English—Sand and Foam (1926) and Jesus, The Son of Man (1928)—that illustrate his philosophy. After his death earlier essays were compiled and published, and his Arabic work has been translated into many languages.
Gibran was 48 when he died in New York City on April 10, 1931, of cancer of the liver. The Arabic world eulogized him as a genius and patriot. A grand procession greeted his body upon its return to Besharri for burial in September 1931. Today, Arabic scholars praise Gibran for introducing Western romanticism and a freer style to highly formalized Arabic poetry. "Gibranism," the term used for his approach, attracted many followers.
In America, the West Tenth Street Studio for Artists in Greenwich Village, where he lived after 1911, has been replaced with a modern apartment building. But Gibran's books are in countless libraries and book stores. Five art works, including a portrait sketch of Albert Pinkham Ryder, are at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the gift of his patron Mary Haskell Minis.
The young emigrant from Lebanon who came through Ellis Island in 1895 never became an American citizen: he loved his birthplace too much. But he was able to combine two heritages and achieved lasting fame in widely different cultures. These two aphorisms from Sand and Foam convey Gibran's message:
Faith is an oasis in the heart which will never be reached by the caravan of thinking.
How can you sing if your mouth be filled with food? How shall your hand be raised in blessing if it is filled with gold?
Further Reading on Kahlil Gibran
The definitive biography of Gibran in English by Jean Gibran and Kahlil Gibran, Kahlil Gibran, His Life and World (1974), documents his life through letters, notebooks, and diaries. Beloved Prophet, The Love Letters of Kahlil Gibran and Mary Haskell and Her Private Journal (1972), edited by Virginia Hilu, reveals the complex relationship between Gibran and his longtime patron. An early biography, This Man from Lebanon (1945) by Barbara Young, presents an uncritical view. A more realistic but undocumented study is Mikhail Naimah, Kahlil Gibran, A Biography (1950). Khalil S. Hawi, Kahlil Gibran: His Background, Character, and Works (1963) is a detailed study, but the author lacked access to important sources. Studies on Arabic literature that discuss Gibran include: Salma Khadra Jayyusi, Trends and Movements in Modern Arabic Poetry (1977), Vol. I; M. M. Badawi, A Critical Introduction to Modern Arabic Poetry (1971), Ch. 5, "The Emigrant Poets."
Additional Biography Sources
Gibran, Jean, Kahlil Gibran, his life and world, Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1974.
Gibran, Jean, Kahlil Gibran, his life and world, New York: Interlink Books, 1991.
Hawi, Khalil S., Kahlil Gibran: his background, character, and works, London: Third World Centre for Research & Publishing, 1982, 1972.