It has sold more than 100 million copies in dozens of languages. It has never been out of print since its original publication in 1923. And the author’s status as the third best-selling poet in history puts him in the company of Shakespeare and Lao-tzu.
The book is The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. And with that kind of track record, why isn’t he a household name?
Kahlil Gibran was born in Lebanon in 1883. His mother brought him and his siblings to the United States when he was 12, while Gibran’s father, who reportedly abused her, was in jail. They settled in Boston, joining relatives who were already there.
“At the time, immigrants into Boston, found the least expensive housing in Chinatown, which is where they settled. Gibran was already 12 when he came, almost 13, and was put into public schools. And there he was in a Boston school with Chinese children. I think was quite bewildering. He only gradually learned English and he was very good at art.”
This is Dr. Juan Cole, an historian whose expertise includes the Middle East and social and intellectual histories. He is an expert on Gibran’s work and has written translations of several of his books.
“He came to the attention of social workers who were in the Boston school system. And it was something that the school system had put in place to identify gifted children. There was a Thursday afternoon gathering at a particular house, that they brought these children and exposed them to really the Boston avant-garde,” explained Cole. “So photographers like Fred Holland Day would come by and they would take the children on weekend excursions to the Opera, or they would take them on a picnic and read to them Whitman or Zarathustra.”
Gibran absorbed a few years of this rich cultural education, developing his own artistic skills along the way, before going back to Lebanon to attend a well-known preparatory school when he was 15. Four years later, in 1902, he returned to Boston and gradually made a name for himself as an artist.
He held his first exhibition in 1904, at Fred Holland Day’s Boston studio. There, he met someone who would change the course of his life.
“So, Gibran came up through that, program, and was able to get patronage to exhibit his art. But as he got older, he felt that he’d be most successful if he could combine art, and his writing,” said Cole.
“He had a patron, Mary Haskell, who was a [transplanted] southern Arab and a headmistress of a rural school in Boston, who took on young men, as, educational projects and paid for their education. She sent Gibran to Paris, where he studied in the circle symbolic art.”
Haskell helped Gibran arrange showings for his art, and she provided networking connections and important introductions. When he began to write in English — he had already been published in Arabic by the Expatriate Arab Press in New York — she served as his editor, ultimately guiding him to submit his first book, called The Madman, to a young publisher named Alfred A. Knopf.
Knopf, whose eponymous imprint is now an anchor of Penguin Random House’s reputation, published The Madman, a collection of aphorisms and parables written in language that blended poetry and prose, in 1918. There was another book in 1919, and still another in 1920, and they did well enough to keep Knopf interested.
Then in 1923, when Gibran was 40 years old, there came The Prophet. It’s a collection of 26 prose poems that read almost like sermons, in which a wise man named Almustafa is preparing to set sail for his homeland after 12 years in exile on a fictional island. Before he leaves, the residents ask him to impart wisdom about, well, life, the universe, and everything.
The Prophet contains entries on love, children, giving, joy and sorrow, crime and punishment, self-knowledge, freedom, beauty, pleasure, pain, and yes, even on marriage:
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. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together, yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.
It’s fair to say that whatever expectations Knopf and Gibran had for The Prophet, they got blown out of the water.
“It took off. It went, we would now say it went viral. [It] became a publishing phenomenon,” explained Cole.
The first print run of 1200 copies sold out in a matter of months. That’s a respectable performance for a book of poetry by a mostly unknown writer even by today’s standards.
“Every year, it sold more, and more, and more. And by the 1930s and the era of the Great Depression, it was selling hundreds of thousands of copies a year.”
And it only picked up steam in the decades that followed. By the 1960s, upwards of five thousand copies of The Prophet were sold each week. Let’s stop to take that in. This was a book so successful that it not only stayed in print for decades but managed to sell increasingly more with each passing decade.
And this for a title that wasn’t a work of fiction — Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis was published the same year and is the only still-recognized title on the list of the year’s bestselling fiction. Remember, this was a collection of esoteric poetry.
So how did it happen? What was it about The Prophet that resonated with readers in 1923 and even more readers in 1943 and still more in 1963?
“I think that urban American was secularizing in those years. And I think that there was a thirst for a non-fundamentalist form [of] spirituality. And below the Great Depression, there’s, polling evidence that people were angry at God, about the straits tow which they were reduced,” said Cole. “I think it became mutual that people also then turned on conventional religion.”
When the way you’ve understood the world no longer seems to fit, you go looking for a new one. It’s not the full Eat Pray Love, but putting down the Bible and picking up a work of mystical poetry makes human sense.
“And so you had you know, people joining the communist party, which is strictly atheist and so forth. So I think, I think that at least from ’29 forward, some of the popularity of The Prophet was that people were willing to give up a spiritual point of view on life and some of them turned against conventional religion.”
So Christianity wasn’t cutting it anymore, but people were still seeking answers to the persistent big picture questions that define life. What do you do when you don’t want to quote First Corinthians 13 at your “spiritual-but-not-religious” wedding? How will you replace “love is patient, love is kind?” Well, how about with “love gives naught but itself and takes naught from itself. Love possesses not nor would it be possessed; For love is sufficient unto love.”
“And so, they began reading The Prophet at weddings. That was when the custom began as an alternative to the Bible. People would read Psalms and the Song of Solomon and so forth. And, so they substituted Gibran for that,” said Cole.
Other than a brief campaign around its original publication, The Prophet has never been advertised. So word of mouth recommendations compounded from one generation of readers to the next, from couples who incorporated Gibran’s words into their wedding ceremonies in the 1930s and ’40s to their children and grandchildren, who would become the hippies of the 1960s.
And that’s where it really takes off.
“In the ’60s, there was a youth counter culture which was extremely influential” said Cole. “Those were the ones who were experimenting with what were called, at the time, eastern religions. And so Steve Jobs’s fascination with Buddhism comes out at the period. And Hindu Gurus were popular. So in that context where again, I think in part because of the Vietnam War, which was supported to the hill by the American religious establishment.”
“The young people felt entirely different about it, so there was a lot of rebellion again against conventional religion, and conventional society. People tapped into the message of The Prophet.”
The 1 millionth copy sold in 1957, just before the confluence of events Dr. Cole describes made it the bible of the counter culture. Since then, it has sold north of 9 million more in the U.S. and more than 90 million worldwide.
So how can it be that this book, this undeniable smash-hit commercial success that has managed to stay culturally relevant for almost a century, isn’t at the top of school reading lists and in a place of honor on every family bookshelf? Why isn’t Kahlil Gibran a household name?
“In academic terms, the real question is whether an author gets into the Canon,” said Cole. “The Canon is a list of well regarding works taught particularly be English professors. I think Gibran initially had a shot at being in the Canon in the sense that, he published in Avant-Garde, in Boston Journal, [in] The Dial, which also was where T.S. Eliot was publishing at the time.”
But — and maybe this speaks to the timelessness of The Prophet’s appeal — Gibran missed the trend. He was a symbolist at a time when modernism was the hot new thing.
“I think that the college professors of 1930 were starting to be under the influence of the modernists and saw symbolism as old hat. So they didn’t bring Gibran into the Canon.”
So Gibran’s first shot at the Canon was over before The Prophet even really hit the stratosphere. And stylistic concerns aren’t the only factor that can keep a book off syllabi.
“I think that, when one thinks about the Canon, they’re not typically the paperbacks you find at the airport. And I think that the professors may have felt that anything that popular couldn’t possibly be good, that there’s a certain amount of elitism,” explained Cole.
You can hear one critic wrestle with and ultimately reject the notion that what is popular cannot possibly be good in this piece from The New York Times “Speaking of Books” column in 1957:
I would say that “The Prophet”‘s sale is both understandable and deserved, which are, of course, two quite different things. It is understandable first of all because the period in which it had flourished is one in search of reassurance and avid for answers to its perplexing questions about life. That quest has been so widespread and so intense that scores of inferior books, offering pat and easy answers, have fattened on it, to the end that “inspirational” has become almost a dirty word. You might describe “The Prophet” by that adjective, but not in a derogatory sense, for it contains that scarce commodity, wisdom.
Because it does, and because Gibran at times achieves a Biblical majesty of phrase, one can say that its sale is not only understandable, but deserved.
But that critic looks like the exception rather than the rule, even today. As Philip Metres noted in a piece published on LitHub: “contemporary poets are relentless in their derision of Gibran, placing his poetry somewhere between Jewel and Jimmy Carter.”
It appears that the very things that gives Gibran’s work enduring appeal are the same ones that prevent it from being widely celebrated as classic or canonical. Surely it’s no accident that readers recommend this beautifully written work of spiritual advice by word-of-mouth rather than shouting it from the rooftops. We all need answers to the existential questions, but we’re not supposed to be proud of it.
So The Prophet, which has reportedly sold nearly as many copies worldwide as a little book called The Hobbit, lives in a strange in-between place in our cultural imagination. It is beloved by many and yet somehow known by few.
But the ones who love it really love it. It has been rated on Goodreads more than 190,000 times, and has an average rating of 4.23 stars. That’s higher than Shakespeare!
A Google search for “Kahlil Gibran on marriage” alone turns up more than a million results.
Etsy sellers offer posters, paintings, and even prayer flags inscribed with Gibran’s words.
There was even an animated adaptation — a really interesting choice for such adult material — in 2015, starring Salma Hayek, Liam Neeson, John Krasinski, and Quvenzhané Wallis. Salma Hayek came to the project through, you guessed it, a book passed down through her family.
The film, which cost an estimated $12 million to make and was written by Roger Allers, who directed The Lion King, grossed barely $300,000 at the box office.
“I just think it, it has these popular networks of continued interest. Although as we speak, it’s in a trough. It’s not viral at the moment,” said Cole.
But it could be soon. The Prophet entered public domain on January 1, 2019, which means that anyone can use it or adapt it without having to obtain permission.
“I think you know there’s a lot of opportunities now for expressing the thoughts that are in The Prophet in new ways. And so I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, if there’s another wave of popularity for him,” said Cole.
Penguin Classics has already released a new edition with a foreword by Instagram’s poet laureate, Rupi Kaur, so maybe it’s just a matter of time before Gibran joins Rumi and Mary Oliver as poets whose words appear on images of ocean waves and ancient mountains in our social feeds.
There would be a certain poetic justice to the original viral poet finally getting his due.
And not only that. Bringing Gibran back to the forefront of cultural conversation — if not belatedly installing him in the Canon — could have other positive consequences.
“One thing that might be said is that in our age of Islamophobia and a kind of negative association of things middle eastern, recovering Gibran as a middle easterner, could be an important cultural enterprise,” said Cole.
One can’t help but think that Gibran would have been both frustrated and unsurprised by the persistence of the problems we face today…but also that he’d be happy to contribute to our search for answers.
The above piece comes from our former Annotated podcast series, originally aired in April 2019. For further reading on The Prophet, dig into the show notes for the episode.