Today in Literary History – January 6, 1883 – Khalil Gibran, author of The Prophet, is born

Khalil Gibran, the author, poet, and artist most famous for his book The Prophet, was born on January 6, 1883, in what is now Lebanon but was then the Syrian province of the Ottoman Empire.

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Gibran grew up in poverty with an alcoholic gambling-addicted father who was sent to prison when he was caught embezzling money from his job as a tax collector. Gibran’s mother decided to follow her brother to America with Gibran (then 12) and his siblings, settling in a slum area of Boston.

Gibran had always shown precocious behaviour and oddly mystical states. He was the only one of his siblings to receive an education. At the age of 13, Gibran’s good looks drew the attention of a photographer, Fred Holland Day, who paid “exotic” or “oriental” boys to pose for him, often in the nude.

His new patron provided Gibran with fancy new clothes and encouraged him in his fantastical stories. Gibran told Day’s circle of friends lofty tales of life in his father’s palace in Lebanon and his high-born status. Whether Day and his friends believed him or not Gibran seems to have acted as if it was true for the rest of his life.

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His second patron was a wealthy older woman, Mary Haskell, who was madly in love with Gibran. They were even briefly engaged but, despite Haskell’s efforts, their relationship never became physical. Gibran told her he wasn’t “sexually minded.”

Haskell did however help Gibran with his writing once he decided to switch from Arabic to English. She heavily edited his manuscripts and made many changes to them.

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The publication of The Prophet in 1923 was the start of a phenomenon. The book sold well right from the start and by now has sold well into the millions. It was especially ubiquitous during the counterculture era of the 1960s, with its atmospheric mix of Christian, Sufi, Baha’i and Buddhist aphorisms and vague sense of universality and common sense. It is also a favourite reading at weddings.

“Love one another, but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other’s cup, but drink not from one cup…”

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Gibran became very wealthy from the book, but became a recluse, living humbly with his devoted sister. He suffered from alcoholism for most of his life and died in 1931 at the age of 48 from cirrhosis of the liver.

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