On September 23, 1923, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, a Romantic book of prose poetry centered on a prophet who shares wisdom about family, work, death, love and freedom, is published. It sold about 1,200 copies in its first year with little fanfare, but gradually gained readers by word of mouth over subsequent decades, becoming something of a phenomenon by 1957, when it sold its millionth copy. Today, The Prophet has sold in excess of 10 million copies and been translated into over 100 languages.
Gibran, who was born in Lebanon (then part of Syria) in 1883 and emigrated to Boston as a child, was first published in an Arabic-language newspaper in 1904, and that same year publicly displayed his visual art, an exhibit of drawings, for the first time. (When studying art in Paris, he met Auguste Rodin, who’s rumored to have referred to Gibran as “the William Blake of the twentieth century.”) Gibran continued to make art and publish in Arabic before releasing The Madman, his first collection of poems in English, in 1918, followed not long after by The Prophet.
The Prophet’s success made Gibran, whose Arabic name is جبران خليل جبران (Jubrān Khalīl Jubrān), one of the best-selling writers of all time—ranked only after William Shakespeare and Lao-tzu. Juan Cole, a translator of Gibran and historian of the Middle East, characterized The Prophet’s popularity in the late ‘50s and ‘60s as part of a cultural shift. “Many people turned away from the establishment of the Church to Gibran,” he said. “He offered a dogma-free universal spiritualism as opposed to orthodox religion, and his vision of the spiritual was not moralistic. In fact, he urged people to be non-judgmental.”
The widespread success of Gibran’s humanistic, accessible prose was a surprise even to its publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, who Gibran met upon moving to New York City in 1911. Knopf once said of The Prophet’s readership: “It must be a cult. But I have never met any of its members. I haven’t met five people who have read Gibran.” Knopf advertised the book only once.
Gibran published nine books in Arabic and eight in English during his lifetime. He died of liver disease in 1931 at age 48.