The Magazine

‘Prophet’ With Honor

The enigmatic man behind the perennial bestseller.

Oct 10, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 04 • By ALASDAIR SOUSSI
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In 1941, a decade after the death of Kahlil Gibran, his good friend Witter Bynner responded to a query from a student asking about the Lebanese-born poet, artist, and philosopher. “Perhaps the best illustration I can give you of the man’s personal quality,” replied Bynner, “is an episode which took place at the house of Mrs. Simeon Ford (Julia Ellsworth Ford) through whom I met him.”

One night at dinner there the maids failed to bring on one of the courses, and after a considerable wait and several bell ringings, Mrs. Ford rose and went to the pantry. There, behind a screen, stood two maids. When reprimanded, one of them explained, “But Mrs. Ford, how can we go about our business when Mr. Gibran is talking? He sounds like Jesus.” And he did.

The life and times of this American success story are full of such references to Gibran’s apparent messiah-like qualities, and the ease with which, like a king over his subjects, he held court. An enigmatic man from an equally enigmatic land, Gibran was no slouch on matters profound, and his ability to arouse the curiosity of American High Society was an art form he exploited with consummate ease for much of his short life.

Here in America we know him principally as the author of The Prophet, the perennial bestseller which (along with millions of others) was my first foray into the world of Gibran. At first, and after being given it by my Lebanese-born father, I was not so enamored of this short mystical work with margins you could drive a herd of cattle through. At the time, I was too struck with the brutal prose of Ernest Hemingway to give way to a book of prose poems. Yet some years later I dipped into The Prophet once again, and began a literary fascination which has gripped me ever since.

Gibran Khalil Gibran was born in the picturesque village of Bsharri, in northern Lebanon, in 1883. Twelve years later, joining the waves of immigrants who sought a better life in America, he left Lebanon for Boston with his mother and three siblings. Here, the adolescent Gibran caught the attention of Fred Holland Day, a central figure in a group of Decadent poets and artists—and a man with a fondness for photographing picturesque young boys of exotic origin. Handsome and mysterious, Gibran fit the bill, and Day became his mentor, introducing the young Lebanese immigrant to the world of Romantic literature, first by reading to him aloud and then, as Gibran’s English improved, lending him books and generally treating the boy as “an unspoiled genius—a type of the noble savage with which Romantic America was obsessed,” as biographer Robin Waterfield wrote. By the time Gibran removed to New York in 1911, having spent his formative years as a wounded Romantic in Boston, he had already become well known in Arab-American literary circles and, before his death at 48, had largely forsaken Arabic for English.

The difference between his legacy in the Arab world and in the West is marked. In the Arab world Gibran is known as a poet at the forefront of the Romantic revolution in Arabic literature. In his early Arabic works, such as the short-story collections Nymphs of the Valley (1906) and Spirits Rebellious (1908), and his 1912 novella, The Broken Wings, and in his reams of poetry, Gibran scorned convention and raged against laws that oppressed the individual. These themes and ideas influenced the small circle of Arab romantic/revolutionary writers and poets in 1920s New York known as the Mahjar school, who used Gibran’s imagination as a galvanizing force and changed the course of Arabic poetry, rejecting the scholasticism in which Arab letters had been bogged down and, under the influence of Western literature, introduced an experimental, inspirational voice into Arabic poetry, which swiftly filtered back to their native Arab lands.

In the West, of course, Gibran is known less as poet and more as prophet. He wrote a number of works in English, but it was The Prophet (1923), and little else, which captured the imagination of Western readers—and the ire of many detractors. Based on the 26 counsels of Almustafa, who dispenses his wisdom on love, marriage, and children to the grateful people of a fictitious land as he prepares to return to the island of his birth, The Prophet is vague, sentimental, and platitudinous to its critics. But while I share a certain sympathy with such views, it is also a sublime tonic. It is, indeed, vague and sentimental in ways; but its persistent sales would suggest it stirs something within the soul of the common reader. 

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