There's an interesting article by Joan Acocella on the New Yorker website about the Lebanese-American writer & artist Kahlil Gibran, who is the third best-selling poet of all time, following Shakespeare and Lao-tzu. Although it's deeply unfashionable to admit it, I was a fan of Gibran's The Prophet during my adolescence (probably the best time to read it), and despite the book's obvious flaws (as clearly outlined by Acocella) some of its lovelier passages stick with me to this day. Calling Gibran the Paulo Coelho of the 1920s, Acocella examines the author's complicated life, the on-going impact of his seminal book, and the life of Mary Haskell, the little-known woman who played a crucial part in both.
Yes, Gibran was another one of those writers with an uncredited mentor/editor/re-writer* who helped him hone his ideas and shape his prose...and, as was often the case in centuries past, that invisible mentor/collaborator was a woman. After publishing some early works in Arabic, writes Acocella, "Gibran made a serious decision: he was going to begin writing in English. To do this, he needed [Mary] Haskell’s help, and she rushed to give it. When they were apart, he sent her his manuscripts, and she sent back corrections. When they were together...he dictated his work to her. She wrote in her diary that if, during that process, 'we come to a part that I question, we stop then and there.' Who resolved the question? We don’t know. She said that 'he always gave every idea, and I simply found the phrases sometimes.' But finding the phrases is a large part of writing. For Gibran’s first English-language publication, a brief poem, Haskell sent him seven pages of proposed corrections....Until he died, she edited all his English-language books. With the third of these, The Prophet, he hit pay dirt." **
It's a fascinating story, and makes me want to read Robin Waterfield's Gibran biography, published in 1998. It also reminds me of a quote by Anais Nin that influenced me in my twenties even more than Gibran's The Prophet did in my teens:
"For too many centuries women have been being muses to artists. I wanted to be the muse, I wanted to be the wife of the the artist, but I was really trying to avoid the final issue -- that I had to do the job myself."
* The role of a mentor/editor in a writer's work can be a complicated and controversial one. For more on this, read "Rough Crossing: The Cutting of Raymond Carver" (also on the New Yorker website) about the working relationship between Carver and Knopf editor Gordon Lish.
** I don't mean to imply that there's anything wrong per se with this kind of aid and collaboration, even when it's as extensive as Haskell's contributions to Gibran's books. Indeed, I know many writers and artists today -- myself among them -- who are in relationships with other creative artists and who thrive on daily engagement with each other's work. What's notable here is that Haskell worked in the shadows, kept at a firm remove from Gibran's public life and literary persona.