A Lebanese boy named Kahlil Gibran got a lift out of Boston’s slums from a wealthy Bohemian who liked to take pictures.
The boy had arrived in 1895 with his mother, his older half-brother and his two younger sisters. He spoke no English and had had no formal education. They lived in the South End, a crowded slum with the second-largest Syrian-Lebanese community in the United States.
Within three decades he would be the world’s third best-selling poet, behind Shakespeare and Lao-Tzu.
He owed part of his success to Fred Holland Day,
He was born Gibran Khalil Gibran on Jan. 6, 1883, in Besharri, an Ottoman-ruled town in what is now northern Lebanon. His father worked as a clerk in his uncle’s apothecary shop for a while. Then his gambling debts forced him to become a strong man for a local Ottoman-appointed bureaucrat.
Khalil’s mother Kamila, a Maronite Christian, encouraged her son’s interest in art, which his abusive father discouraged.
His father went to jail on charges of graft. Kamila decided to escape her miserable life and brought her four children to the South End of Boston. She supported the family by peddling lace and linen door-to-door.
Gibran Khalil Gibran at 12 entered the Quincy School two months after he arrived in the United States. A clerical error eliminated his first name. He accepted the shortened version, and he also accepted the way Americans viewed foreigners.
The Road to The Prophet
There he met Fred Holland Day, an independently wealthy, avant-garden publisher, photographer, flamboyant dandy and tutor to poor children. Day belonged to the circle of Boston Bohemians that included Ralph Adams Cram, Ethel Reed and Louise Imogen Guiney.
Though Day was intensely private, he was assumed to be gay, partly because he took arty photographs of nude young men. He also photographed immigrant children in campy versions of their native garb.
Day took photos of Armenian children in turbans, of black children in Ethiopian outfits and of Kahlil in an Arab burnoose. They were Armenian princes and Ethiopian chieftains — and Kahlil Gibran was an Arab sheik.
As condescending and inappropriate as the photographs were, they gave the children a sense they were special. Kahlil especially found in the photograph a vision of nobility that he strove for in real life.
Day also encouraged him to study William Blake’s drawings and to read Walt Whitman and Maurice Maeterlinck. And he also published Kahlil Gibran’s drawings to illustrate several books.
Kahlil’s mother was probably concerned about Day’s influence over her sensitive son. So she sent him back to Lebanon to finish his education.
Kahlil Gibran returned to Boston four years later and began publishing prose poems. In 1923, he published a series of prose poems called The Prophet.
It was a pathbreaking work, part of a renaissance in Arabic literature and a breakaway from literary and political conventions.
The Prophet, considered a classic of world literature, sold more than 100 million copies and has been translated into 40 languages.
Kahlil Gibran died on April 10, 1931.
This story about Kahlil Gibran was updated in 2020.