SUHEIL BUSHRUI, PhD
I believe in you, and I believe in your destiny.
I believe that you are contributors to this new civilisation.
I believe that you have inherited from your forefathers an ancient dream, a song, a prophecy, which you can proudly lay as a gift of gratitude upon the lap of America.
I believe that you can say to the Founders of this great nation, ‘Here I am, a youth, a young tree whose roots were plucked from the hills of Lebanon, yet am I deeply rooted here, and I will be fruitful.1
In a recent edition of the programme 20/20 on Network Television, Barbara Walters interviewed the man who more than anyone else today symbolises the best of America, General Norman Schwarzkopf. Viewers were given a rare glimpse of the great man’s private world, including a pile of books on the table by his bed. On top of the pile, clearly picked out by the camera, was a slim volume called The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran.
That General Schwarzkopf should give pride of place to this particular book among his bedside reading is perhaps not so very surprising, since millions of Americans have done likewise over the seven decades since it was first published, and only the Bible has sold more copies in America this century. Indeed, The Prophet has a colossal readership all over the world, having been translated into a host of different languages. Nevertheless, this most intimate of works remains a book for individuals rather than multitudes. And its presence by the bedside of an individual such as the General provides the best evidence of where its author stands in the conscience of the nation.
Who knows how many other great individuals have had their lives touched by the work of Kahlil Gibran? A putative list would include several US Presidents, among them Woodrow Wilson, who told Gibran: ‘You are the first Eastern storm to sweep this country, and what a number of flowers it has brought!’2 Did Wilson’s predecessor, Teddy Roosevelt, share the unbounded enthusiasm which led his sister to host a grand banquet in Gibran’s honour?3 And when John F. Kennedy memorably exhorted Americans: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country’, was he consciously quoting words written by Gibran and addressed to the people of Syria and Lebanon half a century earlier?4 Or did Gibran anticipate with uncanny accuracy a President with a gift for passionate oratory who appealed as much to the hearts as to the minds of his audience?
These rhetorical questions cannot be satisfactorily answered. Indeed, they are not meant to be answered, but to point the way to a much larger question: what is the secret behind Kahlil Gibran’s astonishing success in America, a success matched by no other writer whose mother tongue was not English? The answer is that he succeeded uniquely in articulating the noblest values of this great country in terms that are powerfully direct and simple, but enlightened by his Oriental soul.
Impressed by the great technological achievements of America, and mindful of the material well-being of the majority of its citizens, Gibran viewed his adopted home from the vantage-point of his own cultural heritage and recognized that the picture was incomplete. Consequently he sought to infuse some Eastern mysticism into Western materialism, believing that humanity was best served by a man capable of bestriding the two cultures and acknowledging the virtues of each.5
His English writings, especially The Prophet, represent the best of both worlds, a richly harmonious blend of East and West.
Gibran, however, was not only a man from the East who brought a much needed element of spirituality to the West. He equally became a man of the West, benefiting from an environment in which freedom, democracy and equality of opportunity opened doors before him as would have been possible nowhere else in the world. His achievement thus symbolises the achievement of America herself, a nation of immigrants which through its ingenuity and largesse has created a truly international society thriving on unity in diversity.
America is in some ways entitled to claim Kahlil Gibran for one of her own sons as his native Lebanon. For he spent only the first twelve years of his life in Bisharri, the village where he was born in 1883, before emigrating with his family to the United States. Apart from two brief return visits to Lebanon and a two-year studentship in Paris, he lived out the last two-thirds of his life, including virtually all of his adulthood, entirely on American soil. It was in New York that he died at the age of 48.
Precocious youth though he was, he could scarcely have guessed at his destiny when he and his family set out from Bisharri on the path trod by many Lebanese before them, the journey to the ‘Promised Land’. A rosy future might well have seemed implausible when these ‘five bewildered emigrants’ eventually arrived and settled in Boston’s Chinatown.6 In 1895 the area was a notorious slum and a chaotic amalgam of diverse races, cultures and religions, including the largest Syrian enclave in America after New York. A hard life awaited them, especially Gibran’s mother Kamila, to whom fell the task of earning enough to sustain four children, her husband having remained in Lebanon.7
The young Kahlil, however, was not deterred by these unpromising beginnings. He was here to make his mark in America; but first, America was to make a significant mark upon him. His full name in Arabic was Gibran Khalil Gibran, the middle name (in its standard transliteration) being his father’s as convention demanded. Not long after he had begun attending the Quincy School in Boston, his teacher of English suggested that he should drop his first name and change the correct spelling of ‘Khalil’ to ‘Kahlil’, making it easier for Americans to pronounce. It is by this modified form of his name that Gibran’s English readers have always known him; only in his Arabic writings did he revert to the original.8
At this stage of his life, Gibran’s command of the English language was no more than rudimentary, and the Quincy School duly placed him in a polyglot class where everyone had to start learning English from scratch. His quick wit and verve that helped him to thrive,9 no doubt well aware that few were likely to succeed in America without a good command of English. A few years later, a decade after arriving in Boston, he wrote to his cousin N’oula, about to embark on the same transatlantic journey from Bisharri. ‘…be brave and work hard so that you can speak the language,’ he urged his young kinsman. ‘After that you will find America is the best place on earth.’10
By then Gibran had good reason to be grateful to his adopted country, having benefited substantially from the percipience and generosity of several Americans. First among these were Florence Peirce and Jessie Fremont Beale of Denison House, the social centre or ‘settlement house’ in Boston where Gibran’s talents as an artist began to burgeon. So impressed were they by the work of the young immigrant that Jessie Beale felt compelled to bring him to the attention of Fred Holland Day, an avant-garde photographer and publisher with an interest in nurturing gifted young people.11 Besides becoming Day’s favourite photographic model, the adolescent Gibran gained much from the older man’s guidance and support. Through him he met the poetess Josephine Peabody, another who helped his career and the first person known to have dubbed him ‘prophet’.12
By 1904 Gibran had developed sufficiently as a painter to begin exhibiting his work in Boston, with moderate success. More important than the critical reception accorded to his paintings, however, was the presence of a young headmistress at one of these exhibitions; Gibran thus met the woman who became his selfless patroness, benefactress and collaborator, Mary Haskell. This prim, sensitive, dynamic schoolteacher, arguably by far the most important individual in his life over the next two decades, perhaps best personifies the bounty of America as experienced by Gibran. Yet it was an ambivalent relationship, Gibran’s joyous gratitude at times turning to a burdensome feeling of indebtedness.13
Such ambivalence equally characterised his attitude towards America, perhaps not surprisingly in one who longed for the place of his birth and would himself come to symbolise the struggle to reconcile East and West. The ‘best place on earth’ in 1905 had three years later become ‘this mechanical and commercial country whose skies are replete with clamour and noise’.14 A further three years on, Gibran was describing America as ‘far greater than what people think; her Destiny is strong and healthy and eager.’15 By June 1912 he had amplified this into the observation that
What is real and fine in America is hidden to the foreigner…the real splendor of America is in her ideal of health, her power to organize, her institutions, her managements, her efficiency, her ambition.16
October of the same year, by contrast, found him musing on the advice of the writer Pierre Loti, who had urged him to ‘save your soul by going back to the East. America is no place for you.’17
The years 1911 and 1912 were of great consequence for Kahlil Gibran. After two years in Paris studying art at Mary’s expense, he was ready to start making a proper living from his paintings and drawings. His writings, not yet in English, were also beginning to win him some renown, albeit purely among Arab readers. It was time for him to move to New York, where the ambience and consciousness would be better suited to his aspirations than stately Boston. Not that Boston had played an insignificant part in his intellectual and artistic upbringing. It was there that he was exposed to the transcendentalism of Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman, fashionable in1890s Boston, and the influence of which is discernable in those of his writings which display a joyous feeling of oneness with nature. There, too, Gibran had inevitably been cast in the role of an exotic attraction, ‘a talented and precocious visionary who could draw like an angel’.18 But that airy world was far behind him now, and the youth was a man of very nearly thirty years with no patience for transience or superficiality.
Gibran came to live in New York at the instigation of his fellow Lebanese émigré writer Ameen Rihani, another whose life was devoted to the promotion of East-West understanding; in 1911 he provided the illustrations for Rihani’s pioneering work The Book of Khalid, the first attempt by an Arab at a novel in English. At once Gibran was struck by the difference between Boston and New York. ‘And what can I tell you of New York?’ he wrote to Mary.
…I have met many people [with] a saintly respect for art — people who are
hungry for the beautiful and the uncommon. Of course I love Boston — but Boston is full of fear — and one must be very strong to live in such a calm and solitary place.19
Here, despite his origins in a small village in Lebanon, was a big city with which Gibran could readily identify. Mary observed as they took the bus down Fifth Avenue that ‘he sat as if the city and he were an orchestra, and the air was full of their music’.20 Later she noted his comments on his developing relationship with the city, once again characterised by ambivalence:
New York is a strange place… It has its own technique in bringing a man out. It is to begin him socially and end him professionally. I want to begin professionally. But I can’t change New York technique, and I don’t feel the strength to combat it besides doing my work. So to a certain extent I accept it and am being known in the New York way.21
Although in every other sense his home would always be the much longed-for Bisharri, New York became Gibran’s professional home. Crucially, New York provided him with the ‘fine, large studio’ at 51 West Tenth Street22 where he was to produce his finest work, and which he dubbed ‘The Hermitage’. He moved in early in 1913. Gibran the artist was about to recede into the shadow of Gibran the writer. One of his closest friends, his fellow Lebanese poet and philosopher Mikhail Naimy, sums up this period of the poet’s life as follows:
…Gibran, urged by the incessant calls for enfoldment of the twin sisters lovingly nursed by his soul — Poetry and Art — was far from being content with the small and slow conquests he was making in the world. To the American public he offered his art without his poetry. To the Arab public, his poetry without his art. The English-speaking world could not read his Arabic poetry; the Arabic-speaking world could not understand his western art. The twins must be made to work as one team. For that he must write in English.23
In his attempts to master the English language, Gibran was fortunate indeed to have the unstinting help and encouragement of Mary Haskell. As early as 1912 he told her of his determination to write in English, and his plans for two works in particular. One of these he was already calling The Madman, under which title it was published six years later. The other, as yet untitled and simply referred to as ‘My Book’, was to be built around the teachings of an ‘Island God’ in exile.24 This took a full eleven years to evolve into the work we now know as The Prophet.
Mary was used from the start as a consultant on Gibran’s English writings, a role she undertook with relish. At first she was like his teacher, helping him appreciate the nuances and subtleties of idiomatic English. Gibran was no beginner, but he was a quick learner; before long her help was confined to correcting his punctuation and grammar, and occasionally suggesting an alternative word for greater felicity of sound. Beginning in June 1914, he sought her comments on most of his English output as it was being written and rewritten: first The Madman, then The Forerunner, and finally The Prophet, whose publication in 1923 marked the end of their collaboration. Of the corrections she made to the galley proofs of The Prophet, Gibran wrote:
Your blessed touch makes every page dear to me. The punctuations, the added spaces, the change of expressions in some places, the changing of ‘Buts’ to ‘Ands’ and the dropping of several ‘Ands’—all these things are just right.25
For her part, Mary said of him in 1920:
He knows more English than any of us, for he is conscious of the bony structure of the language, its solar system.26
Mary was also the first to see, and edit, the prose poem he wrote in 1915 to the distinguished American artist Albert Pinkham Ryder, whom he described as ‘the one painter whom I honour with all my heart’.27 The aging Ryder had delighted him by unexpectedly attending his exhibition at the Montross Gallery, and examining in detail the paintings which moved one of Gibran’s friends to say: ‘He came West for the spirit of the West — but he is the East as it works upon us.’28 It was then Ryder’s turn to be doubly delighted, first by the poem addressed to him and later, after sitting for Gibran, by a very fine pencil drawing of his distinctive bushy-bearded features. Apart from Thomas Edison, in Gibran’s opinion ‘so representative of America,’29 there was no American whose likeness he wanted to capture with his pencil more than that of Ryder.
The poem to Ryder was Gibran’s first published work in his adopted tongue, and as such represents a considerable achievement, despite being touched with hyperbole. The following lines already show traces of the style that would later become familiar to millions, as well as illustrating Gibran’s attachment to the idea of the poet as prophet:
Poet, who has heard thee but the spirits that follow thy solitary path?
Prophet, who has known thee but those who are driven by the Great
Tempest to the lonely grove?
And yet thou art not alone, for thine is the Giant-World of super-realities,
where souls of unborn worlds dance in rhythmic ecstasies; and the silence
that envelops thy name is the very voice of the Great Unknown.
O, poet, who has heard thee but the spirits that follow thy footprints?
O, prophet, who has known thee but those the Tempest carries to the lonely
O, most aloof son of the New World, who has loved thee but those who
know thy burning love?30
It was to be some time before Gibran would again strike such a resoundingly positive note in his writings. It is as though he aged overnight, made melancholy by the cloud of World War I which extended to all parts of the distant Ottoman empire including his beloved Lebanon. The Madman, published as the war came to a close, is by and large a sombre collection of parables and poems, characterised principally by a strong sense of irony; likewise The Forerunner, published two years later. The astringency of these books contrasts sharply with the consoling tone of Gibran’s most famous work.
In June 1918, Gibran met another of that small band of Americans who could justifiably claim to have contributed materially to his success. After The Madman had been refused by a number of publishers, he turned to the young and inexperienced Alfred Knopf, whose name has since become inextricably linked with that of Gibran in the minds of the reading public. ‘Everybody speaks highly of Knopf as a man, and also as a publisher,’ wrote the poet shortly before their first meeting.31 ‘He is young and has an eye for the beautiful…[and] he is honest — he does not leave anything unsaid,’32 Gibran noted with approval when the contract to publish The Madman was signed a few days later. It was a bold gamble on Knopf’s part, but his remarkable faith in a writer unknown to English-speaking readers was to be richly and deservedly rewarded. He subsequently published all of Gibran’s English works including The Prophet, as well as several works originally written in Arabic and translated by others into English.
Both The Madman and The Forerunner enjoyed largely favourable critical reviews which ensured enough sales for Knopf to persevere with Gibran. Ironically The Prophet was much less sympathetically received, gaining its vast readership almost exclusively by word-of-mouth recommendation. It was The Madman which established his credentials as a writer to be taken seriously in America and this was reflected in the many invitations he began receiving to read, speak or just appear at a variety of functions. The Poetry Society of America, at first unsure how to respond to him, became a useful testing ground for reaction to his latest piece in English. It was here that he made the acquaintance of one of his most notable champions, Corinne Robinson, sister of Theodore Roosevelt. The Society invited him, among other things, to lecture on Walt Whitman and his influence.33 Although there is no record of what Gibran said on this occasion, he may well have referred to Whitman’s fine poem ‘Prayer of Columbus’, containing a passage which foreshadows The Madman as well as reinforcing Gibran’s view that the line between poet and prophet is a thin one:
Is it the prophet’s thought I speak, or am I raving?
What do I know of life? what of myself?
I know not even my own work past or present,
Dim ever-shifting guesses of it spread before me,
Of newer better worlds, their mighty parturition,
Mocking, perplexing me.34
In 1919 Gibran’s success as an artist, which contributed in no small part to well-founded comparisons between him and the great poet-painter William Blake, reached its zenith with the publication by Alfred Knopf of a volume entitled Twenty Drawings. The enthusiastic introduction by Alice Raphael, a leading art critic of the day, offers some illumination of this aspect of Gibran’s creative genius:
It is at [the] dividing line of East and West, of the symbolist and the ideationist, that the work of Kahlil Gibran presents itself as an arresting type in our conception of painting.
…He senses the meaning of the earth and her productions; of man, the final and the consummate flower, and throughout his work he expresses the interrelating unity of man with nature.
…His centaurs and horses have a charm beyond their natures so that they are never wholly animal in character. …in regarding these centaurs we sense the beast that is yet man and again the man which is and must be animal; we become conscious of that evolution upward which is in itself a miracle, although there is a barrier which will forever prevent man from clutching the stars.35
This most productive period of Gibran’s life also saw him reach a peak as a writer in Arabic, with the publication in 1920 of al-‘Awasif (The Tempests), a collection of short narratives and prose poems which had appeared in various journals.36 At the same time Gibran also became founder-president of a literary society called al-Rabita ‘l-Qalamiyya (The Pen Bond). The original members of Arrabitah, as it was known for short, were all leading Arab-American writers: Mikhail Naimy, Naseeb ‘Arida, Nudra Haddad, Rashid Ayyub, Ilya Abu Madi, and Gibran himself. The society was to exert enormous and lasting influence on the renaissance in Arab letters, both in America but in other parts of the globe including the Arab world itself. In particular, its members developed a unified approach to Arabic literature and art, and introduced a much-needed spirit of avant-garde experiment into a largely fossilised institution. Fired by Romantic ideals of individual inspiration, pantheism and universal love, they revitalised a great literary language by bringing it closer to the colloquial. And like so many pioneers in different fields throughout history, their unfettered approach was fiercely reviled by reactionaries while being vigorously embraced by those who were hungry for innovation.37
The success of what can only be described as a literary revolution, spearheaded by Gibran, was due in no small part to its genesis in New York, far away from the seat of the traditions to which it offered an unprecedented challenge. There was no Ottoman regime to oppress these writers of al-Mahjar, as the Arab literati in America were known collectively. By the same token, their very remoteness from their roots induced powerful emotions which, coupled with the many-sided influence of Western culture, inspired some exceptional poetry and prose, not least from Kahlil Gibran himself.
Few would contest Gibran’s status as the greatest of Arab Romantics and father of a 20th-century Romantic tradition whose impact on Arab writers has been at least as strong as that of 19th-century figures such as Wordsworth and Keats on their English-speaking counterparts. He was not just a Romantic, however. His success as a writer in both Arabic and English gave him a platform for the expression of views which he felt his fellow Arabs needed to hear, and on occasion he could be quite didactic. His Arabic articles in the early 1920s were dominated by the message that the developing nations should ‘adopt only the constructive aspects of Western society.’38 He feared that the East was either being seduced by the more dangerous attractions of the West or else turning its back altogether. The eminent Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore, whom he met in December 1920, was given a stern lecture on this subject, as Gibran subsequently reported to Mary Haskell:
You know Tagore has talked about America as a money-grabbing land without a vision. I tried to say that spirit may be manifest in machinery, that material and spiritual are not opposed, but that spirit is in all of life and in everything.39
However, the ambivalence which Gibran still felt about the West is evident from a letter which he wrote barely a week later to Mikhail Naimy. Upset by the delayed publication of one of his works due to problems with a printing press, he complained: ‘The West is now a machine, and everything in it is tied to the machine.’40 Yet at the same time Mary Haskell records his view of America and the newly-republicised Soviet Russia as the joint exemplars of a ‘new consciousness’ grounded in the search for ‘goodness and reality’.41
However homesick Gibran may have been, and despite his variously expressed with to ‘go back to Lebanon, and…withdraw from this civilization that runs on wheels’42, he was never slow to declare his appreciation for the nation which had taken him to its bosom. One of the letters which he wrote to May Ziadah, a Cairo-based Lebanese writer with whom he maintained a remarkable 20-year literary and love relationship entirely through correspondence, contains a witty and perceptive passage written in June 1919:
The Americans are a mighty people, indefatigable, persistent, unflagging, sleepless and dreamless. If they hate someone, they kill him with indifference; if they love someone, they smother him with kindness. He who wishes to live in New York should keep a sharp sword by him, but in a sheath full of honey; a sword to punish those who like to kill time, and honey to gratify those who are hungry.43
In another letter to May, in January 1925, he wrote more affectionately:
The Americans are, of all peoples in the world, the most fond of celebrating birthdays and of sending and receiving birthday presents. And for a reason that has escaped me, the Americans shower their kindness on me on such occasions. On the sixth of his month I was embarrassed by their overwhelming kindness and filled with a deep sense of gratitude.44
The first of these two passages was written a year after the publication of The Madman; the second just over a year after The Prophet, whose success sealed the unreserved acceptance into American society which Gibran had always craved.
The overall effect of such acceptance on Gibran was to make him feel more truly a ‘citizen of the world’, a genuine cosmopolite bestriding both East and West. As if to underline this, in 1925 he was invited to become an officer of the New Orient Society in New York, which was dedicated to the promotion of East-West understanding. It was a singular honour, for the Society’s quarterly journal, to which he was also asked to contribute, boasted a distinguished list of writers including Annie Besant, John Dewey, Bertrand Russell, H. G. Wells, and Claude Bragdon.45 Bragdon, who thought very highly of Gibran and his writings, once asked him for his impression of America. Gibran is said to have replied:
Conceive of the world as a rose-bush in a sky-garden, with races and civilizations for its blooms. Some flourish, from others the petals are falling, here one is withered, and just beside it, where once was a great red-hearted blossom, only an empty stalk remains to tell the tale. Now on this rose-bush America represents the bud just pressing at its sheath, just ready to blossom: still hard, still green, and not yet fragrant, but vigorous and full of life.46
Gibran was to complete four more books in English: Sand and Foam, The Earth Gods, The Wanderer, and the best of his late works, Jesus, the Son of Man. but the work on which his fame rests will probably always be The Prophet, which Mary Haskell called ‘the most loving book ever written.’47 The character of Almitra is thought by many to be based on Mary Haskell, a logic which identifies Gibran himself as Almustafa, and New York or perhaps America as a whole as the city of Orphalese.48 If such an interpretation is valid, Gibran not only saw himself as the teacher bringing a breath of spirituality to the West, but as the recipient of many bounties in his adopted land. For Almustafa departs for the isle of his birth with a heavy heart, grateful to the people who have given him his ‘deeper thirsting after life’:49
And though I have eaten berries among the hills when you would have had me sit at your board,
And slept in the portico of the temple when you would gladly have sheltered me,
Yet was it not your loving mindfulness of my days and my nights that made food sweet to my mouth and girdled my sleep with visions?50
In truth, The Prophet is a work of such universal appeal that there is little to be gained from speculating on the identity of persons or places represented in it. For Gibran’s purpose was a lofty one, and his belief in the ‘unity of being’, which led him to call for universal fellowship and the unification of the human race, is a message which retains its potency today as do the messages of all great poets. Inspired by his experiences in a country far from the land of his origins, he strove to resolve cultural and human conflict, in the process developing a unique genre of writing, and transcending the barriers of East and West as few have done before or since. He became not only Gibran of Lebanon, but Gibran of America, indeed Gibran the voice of global consciousness: a voice which increasingly demands to be heard in the continuing Age of Anxiety.