Shakespeare, we are told, is the best-selling poet of all time.
Second is Lao-tzu.
Third is Kahlil Gibran, who owes his place on that list to one book “The Prophet”.
It is a collection of 26 prose poems, delivered as sermons by a fictional wise man in a faraway time and place.
Since its publication, in 1923, “The Prophet” has sold more than 9 million copies in its American edition alone. There are public schools named for Gibran in Brooklyn and Yonkers.
“The Prophet” has been recited at countless weddings and funerals. It is quoted in books and articles on training art teachers, determining criminal responsibility, and enduring ectopic pregnancy, sleep disorders, and the news that your son is gay. Its words turn up in advertisements for marriage counsellors, chiropractors, learning-disabilities specialists, and face cream.
“The Prophet” started fast—it sold out its first printing in a month—and then it got faster, until, in the nineteen-sixties, its sales sometimes reached five thousand copies a week. It was the Bible of that decade. But the book’s popularity should not be laid entirely at the door of the hippies.
“The Prophet” was a hit long before the sixties (it made good money even during the Depression), and sales after that decade have never been less than healthy—a record all the more impressive in that it is due almost entirely to word of mouth. Apart from a brief effort during the twenties, “The Prophet” has never been advertised.
Presumably in honor of this commercial feat, Everyman’s Library has now brought out “Kahlil Gibran: The Collected Works” ($27.50), with a pretty red binding and a gold ribbon for a bookmark.
While most people know Gibran only as the author of “The Prophet,” he wrote 17 books, nine in Arabic and eight in English.
The Everyman’s volume contains twelve of them.
The critics will no doubt greet it with the same indifference they have shown Gibran ever since his death, in 1931. Even his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, brushed him off.
When Knopf was asked, in 1965, who the audience for “The Prophet” was, he replied that he had no idea. “It must be a cult,” he said—an ungrateful response from the man to whom “The Prophet” had been a cash cow for more than 40 years.
In 1974, a cousin of the poet’s, also named Kahlil Gibran, and his wife, Jean, published a good biography, “Kahlil Gibran: His Life and World.”
Then, in 1998, came the more searching “Prophet: The Life and Times of Kahlil Gibran,” by Robin Waterfield, a translator of ancient Greek literature.
But until the first of those books appeared—that is, for 43 years after Gibran’s death—there was no proper biography of this hugely influential author.
Both Waterfield and the Gibrans complain about the literati’s lack of respect for their subject—Waterfield blames it on snobbery, “hard-hearted cynicism”—but the facts they dug up were not such as to improve his reputation.
Part of the reason there were no real biographies is that little was known about Gibran’s life, and the reason for that is that he didn’t want it known.
One point that seems firm is that he was born in Lebanon, in a village called Bsharri, in 1883.
At that time, Lebanon was part of Syria, which in turn was part of the Ottoman Empire. Gibran, by his account, was a brooding, soulful child. From his earliest years, he said, he drew constantly—painting was his first art and, for a long time, as important to him as writing—and he communed with nature.
When a storm came, he would rip off his clothes and run out into the torrent in ecstasy.
His mother, Kamileh, got others to leave her strange boy alone. “Sometimes,” Gibran later recalled, “she would smile at someone who came in . . . and lay her finger on her lip and say, ‘Hush. He’s not here.’ ”