Certain books are boundless. They traverse time and space, capturing the imaginations of readers across generations and geographies. Such is the case with Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) by French aviator-author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900–1944). Written in 1943 at the height of World War II, the book is part interstellar fairy tale, anti-fascist fable, autobiographical adventure, and more. There are, quite possibly, as many interpretations as there are readers—and there are many. Available in more than 500 languages and dialects, it’s the most widely translated book in print after the Bible.
The book has been enshrined as a classic work of children’s literature, one that pays tribute to the creativity and compassion of young people. Saint-Exupéry dedicated The Little Prince to his “best friend in the world,” fellow writer and critic Léon Werth, specifically to Werth “when he was a little boy.” He wrote, “All grown-ups were once children—although few of them remember.” Werth, he said, was one of the few.
While in some ways the book and its titular character remain forever young, time marches forward; 2023 will mark the 80th anniversary of the book’s publication. Celebrations are already underway in New York City, where Saint-Exupéry wrote The Little Prince before he was redeployed with his air force squadron, joining the Allied forces. He vanished in 1944 while on a reconnaissance mission over Europe.
Marking a Milestone
On October 13, the Cultural Services of the French Embassy and Villa Albertine hosted a twofold ceremony in New York tied to The Little Prince. As part of the occasion, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Saint-Exupéry biographer Stacy Schiff was inducted into the French Order of Arts and Letters for her scholarship. In addition, sculptor Jean-Marc de Pas unveiled his plans for a sculpture of the Little Prince, which will be installed in Villa Albertine’s courtyard on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in fall 2023.
Olivier d’Agay, great-nephew of the author and general secretary of the Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Foundation, spoke with PW about the lasting legacy of The Little Prince. Although he never had the opportunity to meet Saint-Exupéry, d’Agay grew up hearing “stories about this fantastic and very enigmatic uncle.” His family recalled Saint-Exupéry’s visits to their home on the Riviera in his plane, often bringing interesting gadgets to show, including an early voice recorder. Saint-Exupéry would also share tales of his travels, much like his aviator-narrator relates his encounter with the Little Prince.
D’Agay described the author’s pivotal stay in New York City in the 1940s, “to convince the Americans to enter the war and fight for civilization, for liberty. It was his mission, and he wrote a lot of books to do that.” Commenting on the enduring relevance of his most iconic book and the context in which it was created, D’Agay said, “We have a lot of comparisons between what is happening now [in the world] and what was happening between 1940 and 1944.” But the resonance goes beyond politics, he said. “[Saint-Exupéry] puts everything in this story, all these skills and all his thoughts, philosophy, and life experiences—as a pilot, a soldier, and even as a child.”
Saint-Exupéry did not live to see his book’s success. Just as The Little Prince went into production, he sailed for North Africa with a single advance copy. D’Agay believes his great uncle would have been proud to see the anniversary celebrations and, above all, to know that “the book is doing something good for humanity. Because it’s not a matter of religion, age, culture, or country—it speaks to everybody.” On a personal level, D’Agay said, “It’s a magic book,” one that he keeps coming back to every 10 years or so. No matter how old you are, “you’ll find answers to eternal questions.”
Creation and Curation
New York is also home to the original draft manuscript of The Little Prince. Commemorating the book is a new exhibit at the Morgan Library & Museum titled “The Little Prince: Taking Flight,” on view through February 5, 2023. Philip S. Palmer, the Robert H. Taylor curator and department head of literary and historical manuscripts, delivered a lecture at the library on November 2 that explored the central question, “How is a great book made?”
One of the most memorable lines of the novel is spoken by the fox to the Little Prince: “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” This piece of wisdom is echoed throughout the story and brings to mind the often hidden layers of creation and revision that go into the crafting of a book. The Morgan’s exhibit provides a rare glimpse into that elusive process. Throughout his presentation, Palmer showed preliminary sketches and excised passages and scenes from the collection, demonstrating Saint-Exupéry’s “efforts to revise, refine, and perfect his literary masterpiece.”
The simplicity of the art and prose is deceptive, Palmer said. Saint-Exupéry often worked late into the night with a cup of coffee or cigarette in hand, and several early sketches bear the tell-tale stains. He had final say on the layout, placement, scale, color, and accompanying captions for his illustrations. As a result, “The Little Prince is one of those books in which text and image are perfectly balanced,” Palmer said.
The book itself functions as a reflection on the creative process. “It’s a story of stories within stories,” Palmer observed. It opens with the narrator’s childhood memory of his first frustrating attempts at drawing, when the grown-ups mistook his picture of a boa constrictor devouring an elephant for a hat. He packed up his paints and devoted himself to more “practical” pursuits, eventually becoming a pilot. “Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them,” Saint-Exupéry writes. The narrator picks up his pen again years later to document his encounter with the extraterrestrial Little Prince of asteroid B-612.
Following the lecture, Palmer shared with PW some of the surprising discoveries he took away from his close work with Saint-Exupéry’s rough text and artwork throughout the curation process, and what these observations reveal about the book’s masterful construction. “When working with drafts and early sketches we generally tend to think of the final, published version as definitive, and we regard the lost scenes and cuts as rightfully excised from what, in the end, becomes a more perfect whole. But then, while doing research for this show, I really liked some of the unused drawings and I sort of thought that some of that material should have been in the final book. At the same time,” he said, “The Little Prince achieves a narrative economy as a short book that would only be jeopardized by too many additional scenes and vignettes. I think it’s fascinating that we can see an array of possibilities of what this book might have been. Not every literary text is so multiple.”
Embedded within the multifaceted story, he told visitors at The Morgan, there are several autobiographical details, including the pilot’s crash in the Sahara (Saint-Exupéry survived a crash in the Libyan desert in December 1935). The black poodle of Saint-Exupéry’s lover Silvia Hamilton is said to be the model for the sheep the pilot draws for the prince. And Hamilton also had at her Upper East Side apartment a blonde-haired doll that stood in for the prince in early sketches. The Little Prince’s prized but prickly rose is said to be inspired by Saint-Exupéry’s wife Consuelo. According to Palmer, preliminary drafts of The Little Prince contained even more elements pulled from Saint-Exupéry’s life, particularly his experience as an aviator. Three drawings of the book’s pilot-narrator—left out of the published book—are on view in the gallery. Palmer believes that the omission and the more generic description of the pilot “help preserve the book’s timeless, fairy tale quality.”
The exhibit also illuminates the many themes of flight that underscore the novel and its publication journey. Palmer noted the twinned voyages of the pilot-narrator and the Little Prince, perhaps symbols of the author himself, and the flights of fancy their travels inspire in readers the world over. Much like Dorothy in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and so many children’s book heroes, “the prince’s departure from his asteroid is actually a homecoming,” he said. “He may leave his rose behind, but he gains a profound understanding of his relationship with her while he visits Earth. He has to leave home to get back home. Distance offers perspective.”
The final image presented in The Morgan’s intimate and insightful exhibit is a discarded drawing by Saint-Exupéry of the Little Prince soaring above the Earth. On close inspection, you can see that the paper has been crumpled and flattened out again. “It reminds us of the ephemerality of cultural expression on paper,” Palmer said. The notion of ephemerality brings to mind a bit of dialogue from the book. “What does that mean—‘ephemeral’?” the prince asks a geographer he encounters on another planet. “It means, ‘which is in danger of speedy disappearance.’ ” While the geographer says he isn’t interested in flowers and other things that fade, only “matters of consequence” and “eternal things” like mountains and oceans, the prince has dedicated his life to his rose. Saint-Exupéry shows that this act is in itself a matter of consequence. “It is the time you have devoted to your rose that makes your rose so important,” the fox says in a subsequent scene.
The same could be said for Saint-Exupéry and his book. Nearly 80 years later, The Little Prince is not so ephemeral after all.