Image credit: “Le petit prince et la main du pilote tenant un marteau.” New York, 1942. Watercolor and ink on onionskin paper. The Morgan Library.
On a quiet Thursday morning, a day before the official opening of The Little Prince: Taking a Flight exhibit (through February 4, 2023 at the Morgan Library & Museum), I was looking for the answers to the mystery of The Little Prince, a charmingly illustrated story of a small boy who lives on an asteroid and travels across the universe, discovering friendship, love, and loss, and gaining knowledge about adults and their peculiar interests.
What makes this short book, composed and illustrated by the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, so magically appealing? Apart from religious texts like the Bible, The Little Prince has become, since its original French publication in 1943, one of the most frequently translated texts on planet Earth.
The current exhibit enables the Morgan to display one of its most precious holdings: the original manuscript and drawings for The Little Prince.
Standing alone in a tiny gallery, gazing at vitrines filled with semi-sheer sheets of onionskin drafts alongside Saint-Exupéry’s delicate watercolor pictures of the flora and fauna of the desert landscape that the Little Prince inhabits, it was easy to imagine that I, too, was inhabiting the tiny planet that is the setting for this uncanny work of art.
Ever since first reading the book when I was a child growing up in Siberia, I’ve been stunned by seeing how widely the book’s influence has spread around the world. During childhood travels, and then on business trips, I seemed to constantly meet people who, out of the blue, would start talking to me about their love for the novella or showing me their Little Prince tattoos. Perhaps, some of those young (and not-so-young) adults sensed that I was one of them, one of those pensive fellow travelers, deeply infected by The Little Prince’s strange aura of melancholy. “My favorite children’s reading,” some would say: “A masterpiece!”
All this evidence of my favorite book’s widespread popularity made me jealous: The Little Prince, I have always believed, was mine—as if it was a book uniquely meant for me.
I first got obsessed with The Little Prince around the age of 3 when I was learning to read. From page one, I knew I encountered something special: the illustrations were inserted into the text, and, rather than simply supporting the plot, they made the narrator’s voice captivatingly honest. The first was the picture of a boa constrictor devouring a beast—the copy of an illustration from the narrator’s beloved children’s book about jungle wildlife. The second picture was the famous “drawing Number One”—the author’s naive depiction of a snake digesting a whole elephant, which all the adults mistook for a man’s hat.
An elephant-in-a-snake was such a clever device, it instantly made me ashamed of only seeing a hat. No fear seemed greater to me than becoming a boring adult. I was impatient to check if adults would actually see a hat as it was promised, so I started showing my own copy of Saint-Exupéry’s doodle to every grown-up I knew (mostly to architects who worked with my mother).
To my surprise, all of them saw a well-fed boa constrictor—they all knew the book.
When I grew a little older, I continued challenging adults with questions about the book, but the snake that was on the first page no longer interested me; I was preoccupied instead with the serpent who ended the story by biting the Prince and thus freeing his lonesome soul.
Did the Prince die? I wondered, but the adults kept telling me that he was fine and that he had safely returned to his home planet.
Perhaps my parents and their friends did not know how to talk about death to a child, or perhaps they didn’t recall one of the final images showing the Prince’s little body falling gently on the sand. Or maybe this is how they preferred to remember things: in the alternate universe of their idealized memory, the Little Prince light-heartedly flies away.
Although I felt betrayed by how adults interpreted the heartbreaking end of my beloved book, I understood why the theme of flight would be so deeply associated with Saint-Exupéry’s illustrated tale. After all, who did not dream about gliding in the sky like a bird when they were little? It may be that they somehow merged the Prince with another forever-young airborne literary character, Peter Pan—and indeed, even though the Prince normally traveled with a flock of wild birds, one of Saint-Exupéry’s earlier sketches depicted him floating high above the Earth.
“So you, too, come from the sky!” says the Little Prince to the pilot who encounters him in a desert.
It’s not hard to draw parallels between Saint-Exupéry’s experience as a professional pilot and the images of flight that pervade The Little Prince. In December 1935, Saint-Exupéry and his navigator, André Prévot, had crashed in the Libyan Desert, where, severely dehydrated, they suffered from hallucinations. The incident informs the opening scene of The Little Prince, and the Morgan curators organized their exhibit around this connection.
The first part of the show featured pictures of Saint-Exupéry’s Caudron Simoun and Farman aircrafts. There is a portrait of the author in a beautiful aviator’s leather coat, along with dreamy photographs of sun-lit clouds, taken from the plane the aviator flew.
The second part of the show, dedicated to the creation of The Little Prince, showed how Saint-Exupéry, a skillful draftsman, employed his aviator’s eye to draw the Prince’s flights above the Earth with the right perspective necessary for the reader to believe in a story that is told through drawings as much as it is through words.
Still, the “flight” at the exhibition’s core is the artist’s flight of imagination—and the lyrical ways in which Saint-Exupéry explores the inevitability of death.
In 1926, five years after Saint-Exupéry left the French Army and began flying commercially in South America for Aéropostale, he published his first novel, The Aviator, in which the main hero’s last flight ends with the plane’s wing getting shattered. In 1929 the writer became the director of Aéropostale’s South American branch and published Southern Mail, a novel that investigates a pilot’s disappearance in the Sahara. The 1931 novel Night Flight—the first of his books to garner widespread literary acclaim—featured a pilot whose craft disappears in a storm, “amid the far-flung treasure of the stars he roved, in a world where no life was.” The novel almost seems to predict Saint-Exupéry’s own disappearance on a flight over the Mediterranean a decade later.
What few people know is that Saint-Exupéry had begun composing The Little Prince during a miserable two years he spent in New York City, estranged from his tempestuous wife, Consuelo, and tormented by his love for the American journalist Silvia Hamilton. The French wife of one of his publishers, Elizabeth Reynal, suggested that Saint-Exupéry write a children’s book, based on some drawings she had seen on one of his manuscript’s margins.
Scholars have argued that some of the book’s characters were modeled on Consuelo and Silvia Hamilton; the little cosmic wanderer who disappears into thin air was obviously modeled on Saint-Exupéry’s idealistic, younger self.
In April of 1943, the New York publisher Reynal and Hitchcock issued the first editions of The Little Prince—in both English and French, and with identical designs. Shortly after, Saint-Exupéry got permission from General Dwight Eisenhower to join his former squadron—despite being eight years older than the age limit for military pilots. Before departing to Algiers, he handed the Zeiss Ikon camera and The Little Prince drafts in a brown paper bag to Silvia Hamilton as a farewell gift. On July 31, 1944, Saint-Exupéry went on a lone reconnaissance mission only to vanish without a trace.
Over the years, Hamilton gave away quite a few sheets from the manuscript to her friends. However, she still preserved the bulk of the manuscript, which she sold to The Morgan’s former curator Herbert Cahoon in 1968.
Although the exhibition clarifies how the turmoil in the writer’s personal life tinged The Little Prince with its distinctive undercurrent of melancholia, it can’t begin to explain the book’s enchantments. After all, the wall labels with carefully written explanations—the ones that all boring adults read—offer only a glimpse into the alchemy of the book.
What the Morgan gets right, however, is showing us how The Little Prince took shape from day one. Constrained by his monotonous life in America, Saint-Exupéry began his magnum opus from what seems to be both a conventional fairytale and a personal complaint: “Once upon a time there was a little prince who lived on too small a planet and became extremely bored.”
His early illustrations depicted the first encounter between the pilot and the Prince from the narrator’s point of view—we see the pilot’s hand holding a tool. Another sketch portrays the Little Prince walking a tamed fox on a leash. In later drafts, Saint-Exupéry rejected such literalism, creating the magic of ambiguity for which the book is famous.
He edited out some planets he drew the Prince visiting, leaving only the essential events and dialogues, recording the text on a dictaphone to revise how the book not only reads but sounds, perfecting his illustrations until they became the most lively. The narrator’s figure became invisible, inviting the reader to concentrate on the Prince. The leash that symbolized the bond between the Prince and his friend the fox disappeared, echoing the fox’s remark at one point that “what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
The book, written for those who, like Saint-Exupéry himself, have “always been 5 or 6 years old at heart,” is full of trust in its little reader. It makes enough space for interpretations and never over-explains its subject matter.
Before summoning the snake and departing from the Earth for good, the Prince tells the pilot, “In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing.”
The Prince’s disappearance is as sudden as it is sad and left unexplained by the narrator. Which is to say—and perhaps this is the crux of its mysterious power to enchant—by leaving the end ambiguous and denying easy closure as to the most final of all human matters, The Little Prince haunts us in ways that we can never quite outgrow.
Alla Anatsko is MA candidate in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at The New School for Social Research.