Kahlil Gibran – A Brief Biography (1883-1931)
Kahlil Gibran. Le Liban … en quelques mots, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Kahlil Gibran was a Lebanese-American poet, writer, and visual artist who is best known for his bestselling book The Prophet. His poems and writings also led him to be considered a philosopher, but he always rejected this title.
Kahlil Gibran, born Gibran Kahlil Gibran, was born on 6th January 1883 in the village of Bsharri in the Mount Lebanon Mustasarrifate in Ottoman Syria (present-day Lebanon) to a Maronite Christian family.
Gibran had an older half-brother, Boutros, from one of his mother’s previous marriages, and two younger sisters, Sultana and Marianna. The family was financially poor and lived a modest and meager lifestyle. But from a young age, though being a Maronite Christian, his parents set an example of tolerance to their children by refusing to perpetuate religious prejudice and bigotry in their daily lives.
In 1888, Gibran, aged 5, began attending Bsharri’s one-class school run by a priest. It was here that he learned the basics of Arabic, arithmetic, and Syriac.
However, things were not great for the Gibran family. Gibran’s father, Khalil, had accumulated substantial gambling debts which he was not able to repay. He initially worked in an apothecary and then under a local Ottoman administrator.
In 1891, while working as a tax collector, Gibran’s father was fired and his staff was investigated for embezzlement. His father was found guilty of embezzlement and imprisoned. The authorities also confiscated the family’s property, leaving them poorer than before.
Gibran’s mother, Kamila, had had enough, and she resolved to move to America with her children. And although Gibran’s father was released from prison in 1894, his mother left for America in June 1895, when Gibran was 12 years old.
Life in America
Upon arriving in America, Kamila and her children settled down in Boston’s South End, which was then the second-largest Syrian-Lebanese community in America.
In September 1895, Kahlil Gibran was enrolled at the Josiah Quincy School, where he was placed in a special class for immigrants to learn English.
Meanwhile, his mother found work as a seamstress peddler and carried linens and lace from door-to-door trying to sell them. During this period, Gibran also began attending an art school at Denison House, which was a woman-run settlement house in Boston’s South Cove neighborhood.
Gibran got deeply interested in and involved in drawing and painting after he found he had a natural talent and inclination for them. A teacher noticed his creative talents and introduced him to American photographer and avant-garde artist Fred Holland Day, who encouraged him in his creative endeavors.
Day also used Gibran as a subject for his photographs, many of which were displayed at Day’s photograph exhibitions during the late 1890s. It was at one of these exhibitions that he met poet and dramatist Josephine Preston Peabody, who was eight years older than him and with whom he would begin corresponding regularly and become romantically involved.
In 1898, a publisher used some of Gibran’s drawings for book covers.
Back to Lebanon
In 1898, Kahlil Gibran, aged 15, was sent back to his homeland to study Arabic literature. His mother and half-brother wanted him to be exposed to his own heritage and culture as well, rather than just the Western aesthetic culture he was immersed in and surrounded by. They thought it would be a good opportunity for him to learn the literature and history of his country of birth and its people.
Gibran enrolled at the Collège de la Sagesse, a Maronite Catholic school in Beirut (the capital of present-day Lebanon) for a three-year course studying Arabic literature and French. He soon came to be regarded as the college poet and even co-founded a student magazine with other students, including his lifelong friend Youssef Saadallah Howayek, who would go on to establish himself as an artist and writer.
In 1902, Gibran, aged 18, graduated from school with high honors. He then decided to travel to Paris to learn painting. After leaving Beirut, he visited Greece, Italy, and Spain before arriving in Paris.
The Troubling Years
The following two years after his graduation were a particularly troubling and dark time for the young Kahlil Gibran.
His stay in Paris was cut short after he learned of his sister Sultana’s death due to tuberculosis on 2nd April 1902 at the young age of 14. Gibran immediately set out for Boston, arriving two weeks after her death.
Gibran barely had enough time to recover from his sister’s death when his half-brother died in March of the following year, also of tuberculosis. Barely three months later, Gibran’s mother died from cancer. And just two days after her death, Josephine Peabody left him and stopped all correspondence with him without any explanation.
These back-to-back blows within such a short period of time left Gibran absolutely devastated. He was only 20 years old and the only surviving family he had left was his younger sister Marianna, who supported herself and Gibran by working at a dressmaker’s shop.
Meeting Mary Haskell
In January 1904, Gibran’s first exhibition of his drawings was held in Boston at Holland Day’s studio. During this exhibition, he met a woman named Mary Haskell, who was the headmistress of a girls’ school.
Haskell was nine years older than Gibran, and she would go on to become his lifelong friend and patroness, supporting him financially during his struggling days.
She also became the editor for all his writings in English and used her influence to advance his career for the rest of his life. Whether Gibran and Mary were ever romantically involved is still not known for certain.
It is said that they were engaged for some time between 1910 and 1911 after Gibran proposed to her because he did not know how to repay her for everything she had done for him. However, Haskell called off the marriage, stating that she preferred his friendship over any burdensome tie of marriage.
During these early years as a budding writer, Kahlil Gibran read and studied literature widely, seeking influences from a wide variety of literary works and writers.
One of Gibran’s major sources of influence was the King James version of the Bible, which is the English translation of the Bible. The poetry contained in the Old Testament inspired his incantational rhythms and devotional language, and the parables of the New Testament inspired his parables and fables.
While the majority of Arabic authors were more influenced by the Quran and were imitating it either consciously or unconsciously, Gibran was more influenced by the Bible and imitated its style in his writings.
Gibran was also greatly influenced by Syriac literature and considered the Bible to be Syriac literature but with English words.
He admired the works of Syrian writer and poet Francis al-Marrash, which he had studied at the Collège de la Sagesse. He even modeled some of his works and their themes on Marrash’s writings. These themes included truth, education, the natural goodness of man, enslavement, corrupted morals of society, women’s liberation, universal love, and many more.
Gibran was also greatly influenced by the English Poet William Blake, who is regarded as a prominent figure in the poetry and visual art history of the Romantic Age. It was not just Blake’s poems but also his drawings and paintings that influenced Gibran.
Blake’s impact on Gibran was so great that Gibran referred to him as the God-man and described his drawings as the most profound things done and his vision the godliest.
Gibran was also deeply impressed by the English Romantic painter William Turner, whom he regarded as the greatest among all the English artists.
Another influence on Gibran was the American poet Walt Whitman and to some extent German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
Many of the themes in his writings were inspired by his religious views. He was influenced by Christianity, Islam, and by the mysticism of Sufism. He was also somewhat influenced by Jungian psychology and theosophy.
In 1905, Gibran’s first written work, A Profile of the Art of Music, written in Arabic, was published by Al-Mohajer‘s printing department in New York City. He was 22 years old.
The following year, his second work, Nymphs of the Valley, also written in Arabic, was published.
In 1908, his novel, Spirits Rebellious, was published in Arabic. The novel was critical of spiritual and secular authority, and quickly made an impact in his home country. The book was banned and burned at the marketplace in Beirut by priestly zealots who considered the book to be revolutionary, dangerous, and poisonous to the youth.
These incidents led to rumors of his ex-communication by the Maronite Patriarchate.
Back to Paris
In July 1908, Kahlil Gibran, aged 25, went to Paris to study art with financial help from Mary Haskell. Upon arriving in Paris, he enrolled at the Académie Julian, where he joined the workshop of artist Jean-Paul Laurens.
However, Gibran did not stay for long at the academy. By February 1909, he began working at the studio of artist Pierre Marcel-Béronneau and quit the academy for good.
By December of that year, Gibran began working on a series of pencil portraits that he called The Temple of Art series. The series included the portraits of famous male and female artists of the day and his idols of the past.
In Paris, Gibran made acquaintance with Syrian political dissidents and grew to support their cause. He also met and befriended Lebanese-American writer and political activist Ameen Rihani, who soon became a mentor and role model to Gibran. Their friendship would last until 1912.
Back to America
By November 1910, Kahlil Gibran was back in Boston after two years in Paris.
Influenced by the cause of the Syrian dissidents he met in Paris, Gibran joined a Syrian international organization called the Golden Links Society in Boston to get involved in their political activities. He began giving lectures at meetings and promoted independence and liberty from Ottoman Syria.
In 1912, his poetic novel, Broken Wings, a tale of tragic love set at the turn of the 20th century in Beirut, was published in Arabic by the printing house of the Arabic-language periodical Meraat-ul-Gharb in New York.
The following year, he began contributing to the recently-established Arabic magazine Al-Funoon, founded by Syrian writers Abd al-Masih Haddad and Nasib Arida.
In 1914, Gibran’s work A Tear and a Smile was published in Arabic. And in December of the same year, his artworks were displayed at the Montross Gallery, managing to attract the attention of American painter Albert Pinkham Ryder.
Ryder was 67 years old when they met. Gibran later wrote a prose poem in Ryder’s honor. Upon Ryder’s death in 1917, Gibran’s poem was quoted by art critic Henry McBride in his posthumous tribute to Ryder. The poem caught the attention of the newspapers and was published in newspapers across America, thereby bringing Gibran’s name to the widespread attention of the American public for the first time.
English Works and Art Career
Kahlil Gibran continued to write and draw simultaneously, focusing on both art forms equally and maintaining a prolific output in both.
In 1917, an exhibition of forty of his drawings was held in New York in January and February, and another exhibition of thirty of his drawings was held in Boston in April.
From the following year onward, Gibran began writing in English as well for publication. All his previously published works were in Arabic. His first book in English, The Madman, was published in 1918. The book contained parables and poems and included illustrations from Gibran’s drawings.
The following year, he published two new Arabic works, The Processions and Twenty Drawings.
In 1920, Gibran, Nasib Arida, Abd al-Masih Haddad, Ameen Rihani, and Mikhail Naimy (all Arab writers who had emigrated to America from Ottoman-ruled Syria, Palestine, and Lebanon) re-created the New York Pen League. The League promoted the Mahjari literary movement and included several other Mahjari writers.
The same year, two of his works, The Forerunner and The Tempests, both written in Arabic, were published in New York and Cairo respectively.
In early 1921, Kahlil Gibran began experiencing some health issues. The doctors advised him to take six months off from all kinds of work and stay away from city life during the recuperating period.
Gibran took a three-month vacation away from New York, resting and recuperating in the seacoast town of Scituate in Massachusetts. His time there proved to be both refreshing and productive, giving him time to write what he described as some of the best Arabic poems he had ever written.
The year 1923 would, in hindsight, prove to be very memorable for Kahlil Gibran.
His work, The New and the Marvelous, was published in Arabic in Cairo.
But more importantly, his little book, The Prophet, consisting of 26 prose poetry fables in English, was published in New York. Although the book had a slow start and received a mixed critical reception, it would go on to become not only Gibran’s most popular and influential work to date but one of the most popular and influential literary works of all time.
The book revolves around a prophet named Al Mustafa, who has lived in the city of Orphalese for 12 years and is about to take a ship back to his homeland. But before he leaves, he is stopped by a group of people who ask him to speak on topics relating to life and the human condition. Al Mustafa accedes and goes on to speak on love, marriage, children, giving, eating and drinking, work, joy and sorrow, houses, clothes, buying and selling, crime and punishment, laws, freedom, reason and passion, pain, self-knowledge, teaching, friendship, talking, time, good and evil, prayer, pleasure, beauty, religion, and death.
Since its publication, The Prophet has gone on to be translated into more than 100 different languages, thereby making it one of the most translated books in history. The initial issue published in 1923 had a print run of 2000 copies, out of which 1,159 copies were sold.
However, the demand for the book increased over the years, going on to sell over 11 million copies across the world in various languages, thereby making it one of the best-selling books of all time. It has never been out of print since its publication.
The Prophet became so popular and influential in the Arab world that his countrymen in Lebanon insisted that he return to Lebanon and lead its people in their quest to be free from Ottoman rule. Gibran was honored and moved by their request, but he nonetheless rejected the offer, stating that even though he believed he could lead the people of Lebanon, in truth they would not be led. He believed that if he arrived in Lebanon with The Prophet and asked his countrymen to live as per the teachings of the book, their enthusiasm for him would diminish and disappear.
He concluded by saying that he could not fulfill the desire of his countrymen as he was not a politician and had no intentions of being one.
Kahlil Gibran continued to write, paint, and draw in his final years.
In 1926, his work, Sand and Foam, was published. And in 1928, his work, Jesus, the Son of Man, was published.
Gibran was by now a fairly well-known and established writer, mainly due to the tremendous success of The Prophet. He was particularly popular in the Arabic-speaking world where he was considered a literary hero and icon, especially in Lebanon.
However, health issues continued to plague him. In early 1929, he was diagnosed with an enlarged liver, mostly a result of his excessive drinking. He suffered from swellings and rheumatic pains, and the doctors advised him to refrain from all work for a full year.
In March 1931, his final work, The Earth Gods, was published.
On 10th April 1931, Kahlil Gibran, aged 48, died due to cirrhosis of the liver with incipient tuberculosis in one of his lungs.
Gibran wanted to be buried in Lebanon. His body was temporarily interred at Mount Benedict Cemetery in Boston before being taken to Providence, Rhode Island, and then finally to Lebanon aboard the ocean liner SS Sinaia. His body reached his hometown of Bsharri in August.
The Mar Sarkis Monastery in Bsharri was purchased and became his final resting place. The monastery is now the Gibran Museum, which contains over 440 drawings and paintings of Gibran as well as his tomb. It also contains his belongings and furniture from his studio in New York City and his private manuscripts, notebooks, and personal library.
As per his will, all his future American royalties would belong to his hometown of Bsharri to be used for civic betterment. Many of his belongings were also willed to Mary Haskell.
Kahlil Gibran is now widely regarded as one of the most influential writers and poets of the 20th century. He is often considered the single most important influence on Arabic poetry and literature during the first half of the 20th century,
Gibran left behind a rich, varied, and massive body of work as his legacy. He explored diverse literary forms such as poetry, fables, parables, short stories, aphorisms, small fragments of conversation, plays, letters, and political essays. Breaking with the literary forms and styles of the past, he even tried to innovate in his writing.
Gibran’s popularity increased in the 1960s with the onset of the American counterculture, during which period his works, particularly The Prophet and A Tear and a Smile, became quite popular among the youth.
This sudden resurgence in his popularity can be attributed to the fact that several influential and prominent personalities of popular culture such as Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, and David Bowie read and admired his works (especially The Prophet) and even made references to Gibran and his work in some of their songs.
Gibran’s work has gone on to inspire albums, plays, operas, films, and many other forms of adaptations. Public places, educational institutions, museums, schools, monuments, and craters have been named in his honor.
Since his death, his reputation and fame as a writer and artist have only increased, thereby solidifying his stature as a literary icon not just in Lebanon but across the world. His massive and prolific body of work has been described as an artistic legacy to the people of all nations.
Gibran’s work continues to inspire writers and artists across the world, ensuring the continuation of his legacy and influence for generations to come.