How “The Prophet” Made Kahlil Gibran a Household Name in America

Gibran’s closest counterpart today is the Brazilian sage Paulo Coelho, and his books have sold nearly a hundred million copies.

Joan Acocella at Literary Hub: What made The Prophet so fantastically successful? At the opening of the book, we are told that Almustafa, a holy man, has been living in exile, in a city called Orphalese, for twelve years. (When The Prophet was published, Gibran had been living in New York, in “exile” from Lebanon, for twelve years.) A ship is now coming to take him back to the island of his birth. Saddened by his departure, people gather around and ask him for his final words of wisdom—on love, on work, on joy and sorrow, and so forth. He obliges, and his lucubrations on these matters occupy most of the book.

Almustafa’s advice is not bad: love involves suffering; children should be given their independence. Who, these days, would say otherwise? More than the soundness of its advice, however, the mere fact that The Prophet was an advice book—or, more precisely, “inspirational literature”—probably ensured a substantial readership at the start. Gibran’s closest counterpart today is the Brazilian sage Paulo Coelho, and his books have sold nearly a hundred million copies.

Then there is the pleasing ambiguity of Almustafa’s counsels. In the manner of horoscopes, the statements are so widely applicable (“your creativity,” “your family problems”) that almost anyone could think that they were addressed to him. At times, Almustafa’s vagueness is such that you can’t figure out what he means. If you look closely, though, you will see that much of the time he is saying something specific—namely, that everything is everything else.

Freedom is slavery; waking is dreaming; belief is doubt; joy is pain; death is life. So, whatever you’re doing, you needn’t worry, because you’re also doing the opposite. Such paradoxes, which Gibran had used for years to keep Haskell out of his bed, now became his favorite literary device. They appeal not only by their seeming correction of conventional wisdom but also by their hypnotic power, their negation of rational processes.

Also, the book sounds religious, which it is, in a way. Gibran was familiar with Buddhist and Muslim holy books, and above all with the Bible, in both its Arabic and its King James translations. (Those paradoxes of his come partly from the Sermon on the Mount.) In The Prophet he Osterized all these into a warm, smooth, interconfessional soup that was perfect for twentieth-century readers, many of whom longed for the comforts of religion but did not wish to pledge allegiance to any church, let alone to any deity who might have left a record of how he wanted them to behave.

“The Prophet” is a book of 26 prose poetry essays written by the Lebanese-American poet and philosopher Kahlil Gibran. The book was first published in 1923 and has since become one of the best-selling books of all time. In “The Prophet,” Gibran addresses a wide range of topics, including love, marriage, children, work, and death. Through the eyes of the prophet Al Mustafa, who is about to depart from the island of Orphalese, Gibran explores the nature of human emotions and relationships and the role they play in our lives. Throughout the book, Gibran’s writing is characterized by its lyrical beauty and spiritual depth. He encourages readers to think deeply about the choices they make and the paths they follow, and to embrace their own unique sense of purpose and meaning.

It is no surprise that when those two trends—antiauthoritarianism and a nostalgia for sanctity—came together and produced the 1960s, The Prophet’s sales climaxed. Nor is the spirit of the 1960s gone from our world. It survives in the New Age movement—of which Gibran was a midwife—and that market may be what Everyman’s had in mind when it decided to issue the new collection.

Furthermore, The Prophet is comforting. Gibran told Haskell that the whole meaning of the book was “You are far far greater than you know—and All is well.” To people in doubt or in trouble, that is good news. (Reportedly, the book is popular in prisons.) Finally, The Prophet is short—ninety-six pages in its original edition, with margins you could drive a truck through—a selling point not to be dismissed. And, since the text is in small, detachable sections, you can make it even shorter, by just dipping into it here and there, as some people do with the Bible. My guess is that plenty of its fans have not read it from cover to cover.

There is a better book by Gibran, Jesus, the Son of Man, which was published five years after The Prophet. This is his second-most-popular work, but way second. That, no doubt, is because it lacks the something-for-everyone quality of its predecessor. Jesus is about Jesus. Also, it is not a book of advice or consolation. It is a novel of sorts, a collection of seventy-nine statements by people remembering Christ. Some of the speakers are known to us—Pontius Pilate, Mary Magdalene—but others are inventions: a Lebanese shepherd, a Greek apothecary. They all speak as if they were being interviewed.

Though Gibran thought of himself as an admirer of all religions, he had an obsession with Jesus. He told Haskell that Jesus came to him in dreams. The two of them ate watercress together, and Jesus told him special things—for example, parables that didn’t make it into the Gospels. On occasion, Gibran clearly saw himself as Jesus, and presumably it was this that inspired his unwise decision, in Jesus, the Son of Man, to rewrite long sections of the Bible, for example, the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father in earth and heaven, sacred is Thy name. Thy will be done with us, even as in space.” More here.