Born of Maronite parents and baptized Gibran Kahlil Gibran (joob-RAHN)–his name was later shortened–the oldest child of Kahlil Gibran and his wife Kamila Rahme spent his childhood in an isolated village beneath Mount Lebanon. His childhood left him with few material comforts and little formal education, but it did provide him a rich spiritual heritage. Gibran’s work bears the influence of legends and biblical stories handed down for generations in the scenic lands near the ancient Cedars of Lebanon.
Seeking a better future, the family, except for the father, emigrated to Boston in June of 1895, joining relatives in a tenement in South Boston, Massachusetts. His mother sold lace to support her four children and opened a small dry-goods store; she died when Gibran turned twenty.
Gibran’s life changed when Florence Pierce, a settlement-house art teacher, noticed his artistic skills. With Jessie Fremont Beale, a philanthropist, she introduced Gibran to Fred Holland Day, a Boston art patron, art photographer, and patron of literature and the fine arts. Day used Gibran and his brother and sisters as models, and in 1898 Day helped Gibran return to Beirut to study Arabic literature at the Madrasat Al-Hikmat (the school of wisdom), founded by Maronite bishop Joseph Debs. After graduation, he traveled in Syria and Lebanon, visiting historic places. On his return to Boston in April of 1902, two of his sisters and his half-brother died from disease. Marianna, Gibran’s surviving sister, worked as a seamstress to support both her brother and herself, and he resumed working at his art and renewed his friendship with Day.
In 1903 Josephine Preston Peabody, a poet and friend, arranged for an exhibition of Gibran’s work at Wellesley College. In 1904, while exhibiting his work at Day’s Boston studio, Gibran met Mary Elizabeth Haskell, who became his patron and tutor in English. Haskell, the owner of Miss Haskell’s School for Girls and, later, headmistress of the Cambridge School, helped him with his first essay, “al-Musiqa” (1905), published by the Arabic immigrant press of New York City, and provided funds for him to study in France between 1908 and 1910. Gibran studied art with Auguste Rodin in Paris at the Academy of Fine Arts. In 1912 he returned to New York, where he became founder and president of the Arabic P.E.N. Club.
Gibran is best known for his poetic parables and aphorisms contained in such works as The Prophet and Sand and Foam. Translated into numerous languages, The Prophet teaches the seeker how to achieve mastery of life. Gibran opposed authority, which he saw represented by Ottoman Turkish rule and by the Maronite Church, and was influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche as well as Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Blake, though he was also highly religious. The scope of his subjects and the sentimentality with which he presents them have been criticized, but these features are also the source of his popularity. He also wrote poetry in Arabic and was a skillful artist, producing drawings similar in style and feeling to those by the mystic English poet-illustrator Blake.
Gibran influenced youth both in Arab countries and in the United States–particularly college students of the 1960’s–by preaching a religion of love, beauty, and redemption. He died of cancer of the liver in New York City on April 10, 1931, and was buried in Besharri in September, 1931, having never become an American citizen.