Upon the outbreak of the Second World War, Saint-Exupéry, a laureate of several of France's highest literary awards and a successful pioneering aviator prior to the war, initially flew with a reconnaissance squadron as a reserve military pilot in the Armée de l'Air (French Air Force). After France's defeat in 1940 and its armistice with Germany, he and his wife Consuelo fled occupied France and sojourned in North America, with Saint-Exupéry first arriving by himself at the very end of December 1940. His intention for the visit was to convince the United States to quickly enter the war against Nazi Germany and the Axis forces, and he soon became one of the expatriate voices of the French Resistance. In the midst of personal upheavals and failing health he produced almost half of the writings he would be remembered for, including a tender tale of loneliness, friendship, love and loss, in the form of a young prince fallen to Earth. An earlier memoir by the author recounted his aviation experiences in the Sahara and he is thought to have drawn on those same experiences for use as plot elements in The Little Prince.
Saint-Exupéry wrote and illustrated the manuscript during the summer and fall of 1942. Although greeted warmly by French-speaking Americans and by fellow expatriates who had preceded him to New York, his 27-month stay would be marred by health problems and racked with periods of severe stress, martial and marital strife. These included partisan attacks on the author's neutral stance towards ardent French Gaullist and collaborationist Vichy supporters. According to Saint-Exupéry's American translator (the author was unable to become proficient in English), "[h]e was restless and unhappy in exile, seeing no way to fight again for his country and refusing to take part in the political quarrels that set Frenchman against Frenchman". However the period was to be both a "dark but productive time" during which he created three important works.
Between January 1941 and April 1943 the Saint-Exupérys lived in two penthouse apartments on Central Park South, then the Bevin House mansion in Asharoken, Long Island, N.Y., and still later at a rented house on Beekman Place in New York City. The couple also stayed in Quebec, Canada, for five weeks during the late spring of 1942, where they met a precocious eight-year-old boy with blond curly hair, Thomas, the son of philosopher Charles De Koninck with whom the Saint-Exupéry's resided. During an earlier visit to Long Island in August 1939, Saint-Exupéry had also met Land Morrow Lindbergh, the young, golden-haired son of the pioneering American aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife Anne Morrow.
After returning to the United States from his Quebec speaking tour, Saint-Exupéry was pressed to work on a children's book by Elizabeth Reynal, one of the wives of his U.S. publisher, Reynal & Hitchcock. The French wife of Eugene Reynal had closely observed Saint-Exupéry for several months, and noting his ill health and high stress levels, suggested to him that working on a children's story would help.[Note 8] The author wrote and illustrated The Little Prince at various locations in New York City, but principally in the Long Island north-shore community of Asharoken in mid-to-late 1942, with the manuscript being completed in October.
Although the book was started in his Central Park South penthouse, Saint-Exupéry soon found New York City's noise and sweltering summer heat too uncomfortable to work in, so Consuelo was dispatched to find improved accommodations. After spending some time at an unsuitable clapboard country house in Westport, Connecticut, the newer result was to be the Bevin House, a 22 room mansion in Asharoken overlooking Long Island Sound. The author-aviator initially complained, "I wanted a hut [but it's] the Palace of Versailles"; but as the weeks wore on and the author became invested in his project, the home would become "....a haven for writing, the best place I have ever had anywhere in my life". He devoted himself to the book on mostly midnight shifts, usually starting at about 11 p.m., fueled by helpings of scrambled eggs on English muffins, gin and tonics, Coca-Colas, cigarettes and numerous reviews by friends and expatriates who dropped in to see their famous countryman. Included among the reviewers was Consuelo's Swiss writer paramour Denis de Rougemont, who also modeled for a painting of the Little Prince lying on his stomach, feet and arms extended up in the air. De Rougemont would later help Consuelo write her autobiography, The Tale of the Rose, as well as write his own biography of Saint-Exupéry.
While the author's personal life was frequently chaotic, his creative process while writing was disciplined. Christine Nelson, curator of literary and historical manuscripts at the Morgan Library and Museum which had obtained Saint-Exupéry's original manuscript in 1968 stated: "On the one hand, he had a clear vision for the shape, tone, and message of the story. On the other hand, he was ruthless about chopping out entire passages that just weren't quite right", eventually distilling the 30,000 word manuscript, accompanied by small illustrations and sketches, to approximately half its original length. The story, the curator added, was created when he was "...an ex-patriate and distraught about what was going on in his country and in the world."
The large white Second French Empire style mansion, hidden behind tall trees, afforded the writer a multitude of work environments although he usually wrote at a large dining table.  It also allowed him to alternately work on his writings, and then on his sketches and watercolours for hours at a time, moving his armchair and paint easel from the library towards the parlor one room at a time in order to follow the sun's light. His meditative view of the sunsets at the Bevin House eventually became part of the gist of The Little Prince, in which 43 daily sunsets would be discussed. "On your planet..." the story told, "...all you need do is move your chair a few steps."[Note 9]
The original 140-page autograph manuscript of The Little Prince, along with various drafts and trial drawings, were acquired from the author's close friend Silvia Hamilton in 1968 by curator Herbert Cahoon of the Pierpont Morgan Library (now The Morgan Library & Museum) in Manhattan, New York City. It is the only known surviving handwritten draft of the complete work. The manuscript's pages include large amounts of the author's prose that was struck-through and therefore not published as part of the first edition. In addition to the manuscript, several watercolour illustrations by the author are also held by the museum. They were not part of the first edition. The institution has marked both the 50th and 70th anniversaries of the novella's publication, along with the a centenary celebration of the author's birth, with major exhibitions of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's literary works. Physically, the manuscript's onion skin media has become brittle and subject to damage. Saint-Exupéry's handwriting is described as being doctor-like, verging on indecipherable.
The story's keynote aphorism, On ne voit bien qu'avec le cœur. L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux ("One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye") was reworded and rewritten some 15 times before achieving its final phrasing. Saint-Exupéry also used his newly purchased $700 Dictaphone recorder to produce oral drafts for his typist. His initial 30,000 word working manuscript was distilled to less than half its original size through laborious editing sessions. Multiple versions of its many pages were created and its prose then polished over several drafts, with the author occasionally telephoning friends at 2:00 a.m. to solicit opinions on his newly written passages.
Many pages and illustrations were cut from the finished work as he sought to maintain a sense of ambiguity to the story's theme and messages. Included among the deletions in its 17th chapter were references to locales in New York, such as the Rockefeller Center and Long Island. Other deleted pages described the prince's vegetarian diet and the garden on his home asteroid that included beans, radishes, potatoes and tomatoes, but which lacked fruit trees that might have overwhelmed the prince's planetoid. Deleted chapters discussed visits to other asteroids occupied by a retailer brimming with marketing phrases, and an inventor whose creation could produce any object desired at a touch of its controls. Likely the result of the ongoing war in Europe weighing on Saint-Exupéry's shoulders, the author produced a sombre three page epilogue lamenting "On one star someone has lost a friend, on another someone is ill, on another someone is at war...", with the story's pilot-narrator noting of The Prince: "he sees all that. . . . For him, the night is hopeless. And for me, his friend, the night is also hopeless." The draft epilogue was also omitted from the novella's printing.
In April 2012 a Parisian auction house announced the discovery of two previously unknown draft manuscript pages that had been found and that included new text. In the newly discovered material the Prince meets his first Earthling after his arrival. The person he meets is an "ambassador of the human spirit". The ambassador is too busy to talk, saying he is searching for a missing six letter word: "I am looking for a six-letter word that starts with G that means 'gargling'," he says. Saint-Exupéry's text does not say what the word is, but experts believe it could be "guerre" (or "war"). The novella thus takes a more politicized tack with an anti-war sentiment, as 'to gargle' in French is an informal reference to 'honour', which the author may have viewed as a key factor in military confrontations between nations.
- Further information: Morgan exhibitions
Saint-Exupéry met Léon Werth (1878–1955), a writer and art critic, in 1931. Werth soon became Saint-Exupery's closest friend outside of his Aeropostale associates. Werth was an anarchist, a leftist Bolshevik supporter and of Jewish descent, twenty-two years older than Saint-Exupéry. Werth was Saint-Exupéry's very opposite.
Saint-Exupéry dedicated two books to him, Lettre à un otage (Letter to a Hostage) and Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince), and referred to Werth in three more of his works. At the beginning of the Second World War while writing The Little Prince, Saint-Exupéry lived in his downtown New York City apartment, thinking of his native France and his friends. Werth spent the war unobtrusively in Saint-Amour, his village in the Jura, a mountainous region near Switzerland where he was "alone, cold and hungry", a place that had few polite words for French refugees. Werth appears in the preamble to the novella, where Saint-Exupéry dedicates the book to him. It reads:
To Leon Werth
I ask children to forgive me for dedicating this book to a grown-up. I have a serious excuse: this grown-up is the best friend I have in the world. I have another excuse: this grown-up can understand everything, even books for children. I have a third excuse: he lives in France where he is hungry and cold. He needs to be comforted. If all these excuses are not enough then I want to dedicate this book to the child whom this grown-up once was. All grown-ups were children first. (But few of them remember it.) So I correct my dedication:
To Leon Werth, When he was a little boy
Saint-Exupéry's aircraft disappeared over the Mediterranean in July 1944. The following month, Werth learned of his friend's disappearance from a radio broadcast. Without having yet heard of The Little Prince, in November, Werth discovered that Saint-Exupéry had published a fable the previous year in the U.S., which he had illustrated himself, and that it was dedicated to him. At the end of the Second World War, which Antoine de Saint-Exupéry didn't live to see, Werth said: "Peace, without Tonio (Saint-Exupéry) isn't entirely peace." Werth did not see the text for which he was so responsible until five months after his friend's death, when Saint-Exupéry's French publisher, Gallimard, sent him a special edition. Werth died in Paris in 1955.
All of the novella's simple but elegant watercolour illustrations, which were integral to the story, were painted by Saint-Exupéry. He had studied architecture as a young adult but nevertheless could not be considered an artist — which he self-mockingly alluded to in the novella's introduction. Several of his illustrations were painted on the wrong side of the delicate onion skin paper that he used, his medium of choice. As with some of his draft manuscripts, he occasionally gave away preliminary sketches to close friends and colleagues; others were even recovered as crumpled balls from the floors in the cockpits he flew.[Note 10] Two or three original Little Prince drawings were reported in the collections of New York artist, sculptor and experimental filmmaker Joseph Cornell. One rare original Little Prince watercolour would be mysteriously sold at a second-hand book fair in Japan in 1994, and subsequently authenticated in 2007.
An unrepentant lifelong doodler and sketcher, Saint-Exupéry had for many years sketched little people on his napkins, tablecloths, letters to paramours and friends, lined notebooks and other scraps of paper. Early figures took on a multitude of appearances, engaged in a variety of tasks. Some appeared as doll-like figures, baby puffins, angels with wings, and even a figure similar to that in Robert Crumb's later famous Keep On Truckin' of 1968. In a 1940 letter to a friend he sketched a character with his own thinning hair, sporting a bow tie, viewed as a boyish alter-ego, and he later gave a similar doodle to Elizabeth Reynal at his New York publisher's office. Most often the diminutive figure was expressed as "...a slip of a boy with a turned up nose, lots of hair, long baggy pants that were too short for him and with a long scarf that whipped in the wind. Usually the boy had a puzzled expression... [T]his boy Saint-Exupéry came to think of as "the little prince," and he was usually found standing on top of a tiny planet. Most of the time he was alone, sometimes walking up a path. Sometimes there was a single flower on the planet." His characters were frequently seen chasing butterflies; when asked why they did so, Saint-Exupéry, who thought of the figures as his alter-egos, replied that they were actually pursuing a "realistic ideal". Saint-Exupéry eventually settled on the image of the young, precocious child with curly blond hair, an image which would become the subject of speculations as to its source. One "most striking" illustration depicted the pilot-narrator asleep beside his stranded plane prior to the prince's arrival. Although images of the narrator were created for the story, none survived Saint-Exupéry's editing process.
To mark both the 50th and 70th anniversaries of The Little Prince's publication, the Morgan Library and Museum mounted major exhibitions of Saint-Exupéry's draft manuscript, preparatory drawings, and similar materials that it had obtained earlier from a variety of sources. One major source was an intimate friend of his in New York City, Silvia Hamilton (later, Reinhardt), to whom the author gave his working manuscript just prior to returning to Algiers to resume his work as a Free French Air Force pilot. Hamilton's black poodle, Mocha, is believed to have been the model for the Little Prince's sheep, with a Raggedy Ann type doll helping as a stand-in for the prince. Additionally, a pet boxer, Hannibal, that Hamilton gave to him as a gift may have been the model for the story's desert fox and its tiger. A museum representative stated that the novella's final drawings were lost.
Seven unpublished drawings for the book were also displayed at the museum's exhibit, including fearsome looking baobab trees ready to destroy the prince's home asteroid, as well as a picture of the story's narrator, the forlorn pilot, sleeping next to his aircraft. That image was likely omitted to avoid giving the story a 'literalness' that would distract its readers, according to one of the Morgan Library's staff. According to Christine Nelson, curator of literary and historical manuscripts at the Morgan, "[t]he image evokes Saint-Exupéry's own experience of awakening in an isolated, mysterious place. You can almost imagine him wandering without much food and water and conjuring up the character of the Little Prince." Another reviewer noted that the author "chose the best illustrations... to maintain the ethereal tone he wanted his story to exude. Choosing between ambiguity and literal text and illustrations, Saint-Exupéry chose in every case to obfuscate." Not a single drawing of the story's narrator–pilot survived the author's editing process; "he was very good at excising what was not essential to his story".
In 2001 Japanese researcher Yoshitsugu Kunugiyama surmised that the cover illustration Saint-Exupéry painted for Le Petit Prince deliberately depicted a stellar arrangement created to celebrate the author's own centennial of birth. According to Kunugiyama, the cover art chosen from one of Saint-Exupéry's watercolour illustrations contained the planets Saturn and Jupiter, plus the star Aldebaran, arranged as an isosceles triangle, a celestial configuration which occurred in the early 1940s, and which he likely knew would next reoccur in the year 2000. Saint-Exupéry possessed superior mathematical skills and was a master celestial navigator, a vocation he had studied at Salon-de-Provence with the Armée de l'Air (French Air Force).
Stacy Schiff, one of Saint-Exupéry's principal biographers, wrote of him and his most famous work, "rarely have an author and a character been so intimately bound together as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and his Little Prince", and remarking of their dual fates, "the two remain tangled together, twin innocents who fell from the sky". Another noted that the novella's mystique was "enhanced by the parallel between author and subject: imperious innocents whose lives consist of equal parts flight and failed love, who fall to earth, are little impressed with what they find here and ultimately disappear without a trace."
Only weeks after his novella was first published in April 1943, despite his wife's pleadings and before Saint-Exupéry had received any of its royalties (he never would), the author-aviator joined the Free French Forces. He would remain immensely proud of The Little Prince, and almost always kept a personal copy with him which he often read to others during the war.
As part of a 32 ship military convoy he voyaged to North Africa where he rejoined his old squadron to fight with the Allies, resuming his work as a reconnaissance pilot despite the best efforts of his friends, colleagues and fellow airmen who could not prevent him from flying.[Note 11] He had previously escaped death by the barest of margins a number of times, but was then lost in action during a July 1944 spy mission from the moonscapes of Corsica to the continent in preparation for the Allied invasion of occupied France, only three weeks before the Liberation of Paris.[Note 12]
- Further information: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry –Disappearance
Many of the book's initial reviewers were flummoxed by the fable's multi-layered story line and its morals, perhaps expecting a significantly more conventional story from one of France's leading writers. Its publisher had anticipated such reactions to a work that fell neither exclusively into a children's or adult's literature classification. The New York Times wrote shortly before its release "What makes a good children's book?.... ...The Little Prince, which is a fascinating fable for grown-ups [is] of conjectural value for boys and girls of 6, 8 and 10. [It] may very well be a book on the order of Gulliver's Travels, something that exists on two levels"; "Can you clutter up a narrative with paradox and irony and still hold the interest of 8 and 10 year olds?" Notwithstanding the story's duality, the review added that major portions of the story would probably still "capture the imagination of any child." Addressing whether it was written for children or adults, Reynal & Hitchcock promoted it ambiguously, saying that as far as they were concerned "it's the new book by Saint-Exupéry", adding to its dustcover "There are few stories which in some way, in some degree, change the world forever for their readers. This is one."
Others were not shy in offering their praise. Austin Stevens, also of The New York Times, stated that the story possessed "...large portions of the Saint-Exupéry philosophy and poetic spirit. In a way it's a sort of credo." P.L. Travers, author of the Mary Poppins series of children books, wrote in a Herald Tribune review: "...The Little Prince will shine upon children with a sidewise gleam. It will strike them in some place that is not the mind and glow there until the time comes for them to comprehend it."
British journalist Neil Clark, in The American Conservative, much later offered an expansive view of Saint-Exupéry's overall work by commenting that it provides a "…bird's eye view of humanity [and] contains some of the most profound observations on the human condition ever written", and that the author's novella "…doesn't merely express his contempt for selfishness and materialism [but] shows how life should be lived."
The book enjoyed only modest initial success, residing on the The New York Times Best Seller list for only two weeks, as opposed to his earlier 1939 English translation, Wind, Sand and Stars which remained on the same list for nearly five months. As a cultural icon, the novella regularly draws new readers and reviewers, selling almost two million copies annually and also spawning numerous adaptations. Modern-day references to The Little Prince include one from The New York Times that describes it as "abstract" and "fabulistic".
As science fiction
Saint-Exupéry made no attempt at scientific accuracy, and the asteroid on which the Little Prince lives bears little resemblance to an actual asteroid belt. Nevertheless, in retrospect, his book could be considered a pioneering work in depicting humans living on asteroids, a theme which would become a staple of many later works of science fiction (see Asteroids in fiction).