Beloved Lebanese-American Poet and Philosopher Kahlil Gibran on America, New York, and Jewishness
By Maria Popova
The great Lebanese poet and philosopher Kahlil Gibran (January 6, 1883–April 10, 1931) was a boy of twelve when his mother sought refuge from the oppressive Ottoman regime, escaping with him and his two younger sisters to America. It was there that Gibran found his voice as an artist. After settling in Boston, the family suffered tragedy after tragedy — one of Gibran’s sisters and his half-brother died of tuberculosis within a year of each other, and their mother died of cancer three months later. But shortly after this tsunami of loss, Gibran met Mary Haskell — the patron and beloved he would come to describe as “a she-angel who is ushering me toward a splendid future and paving for me the path to intellectual and financial success.”
In 1911, thanks to Haskell’s patronage, he moved to New York, where rented a small studio, labored night and day at his painting and poetry, and eventually came to preside over the Arab-American literary society New York Pen League.
Throughout Beloved Prophet (public library) — the collection of his remarkable love letters to and from Haskell, and the source of his beautiful meditation on why artists make art — Gibran continually puzzles over and marvels at America: its spirit, its social dynamics, and what it means to weave oneself into its cultural fabric as both resident and immigrant.
Half a century before Italo Calvino memorably observed that New York is “the land of the richness of life, of the fullness of every hour in the day,” Gibran writes to Haskell in a letter from May 1 of 1911, just after moving to New York:
I run through the streets of this gigantic city, and shadows run after me. I gaze with a thousand eyes and listen with a thousand ears all through the day; and when I come home late at night I find more things to gaze at and more voices to listen to. New York is not the place where one finds rest. But did I come here for rest? I am so glad to be able to run. I spent yesterday afternoon in the Museum — and I am astonished to find so many wonderful things in it. It is surely one of the great museums in the world in spite of its being only fifty years old. America is far greater than what people think; her Destiny is strong and healthy and eager.
The museum Gibran is referring to can only be the Metropolitan Museum of Art, established not fifty but forty-one years earlier. His remark about half a century being a negligible lifespan for a museum offers a sobering reminder of how young America is, particularly to those of us who came from countries older by millennia, where the ages of art museums are counted in centuries. But rather than a poverty of culture, America’s nascency was — and perhaps still is — replete with opportunity for self-definition and growth, which is what one of its own great poets, Walt Whitman, celebrated half a century before Gibran in his timeless vision for America’s then-young democracy.
In another letter penned nine days later, Gibran marvels at America’s cultural fabric and New York’s ubiquitous Jewishness, which he regards with a compassionate admiration for otherness increasingly rare today. He writes:
Every other person you see on the streets of New York is a Jew; and at noon, when people are out for luncheon, you see nothing but Jews. Today I saw two thousand of them walking on Fifth Avenue. The sight awakens one’s imagination and inspires profound thoughts. It reminds the historian of the slavery of the Jews to the Babylonians and their miserable days in Spain. It makes a poet think deep thoughts of their past in Egypt and their future in this land.
In a passage of extraordinary prescience, written as Europe was being engulfed by the swelling monster of anti-Semitism that would forever scar humanity with the Holocaust three decades later, Gibran adds:
Perhaps a day will come when the dwellers of the East side will march toward Fifth Avenue even as the people of Paris marched to Versailles! The Jew is king in New York, and Fifth Avenue is his place — and History is apt to repeat itself too often. But there is something eternal about the Jew — the world began when he was born, and the world is his to win and to lose and to win again!
Complement this particular passage of the wholly splendid Beloved Prophet with Hannah Arendt on Jewishness and the immigrant plight for identity and Alfred Kazin on loneliness and the immigrant experience, then revisit Gibran on the seeming self vs. the authentic self and the difficult balance of intimacy and independence in love.
Published April 7, 2017