Although he wrote a number of novels, memoirs, short stories, and essays, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry might have been forgotten by history were it not for his most famous book, The Little Prince. Published in 1943, The Little Prince is a fable about a little boy from Asteroid B-612, a speck of a place that houses only the prince, three volcanoes (two active and one extinct), and a single capricious rose that the boy adores and dotes on. Eventually growing tired of his rose’s petty snubs, he leaves his home and journeys across a series of planets, each populated by a lonely character that embodies the worst stereotypes of adulthood: greed, alcoholism, compulsively routine, megalomania, and a lack of imagination.
His final stop is Earth, where he befriends a fox who tells him a precious secret, which has gone on to become the book’s most famous line: “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.” This maxim bears fruit amid the dunes of the Sahara, where the prince meets the story’s narrator, a pilot who has crash-landed in the desert and must fix his plane before he depletes his water supply. As this unlikely pair of aviator and alien begins to bond, the narrator begins to feel the truth behind the fox’s secret.
Although the interplanetary travel and anthropomorphic creatures are the stuff of fantasy, the emotional underpinnings of the book are firmly rooted in human reality. It’s a reality that has proven to have universal appeal: The Little Prince is one of the most published, most translated books of all time. There is a Paris boutique dedicated to all things Little Prince (with a sizeable online presence), a Little Prince opera, ballet, graphic novel, and pop-up book, and a number of film and stage adaptations, with a new film slated for a 2015 release.
Of course, there have also been countless personal, less commercial fan tributes, from Little Prince tattoos to references couched in song lyrics. But perhaps no one has expressed his admiration for the book and its creator more ardently over the years than Howard Scherry. Ever since he wrote his thesis on Saint-Exupéry while an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, Scherry has devoted his life to all things Saint-Exupéry, and has become an autodidactic expert on the author and his oeuvre. He can easily rattle off all manner of associated names, dates, and quotes, and cites passages from works by or about Saint-Exupéry without hesitation. In his opinion, the enduring allure of The Little Prince is no great mystery.
“The Little Prince, I believe, is the story of every reader’s life,” he said during a recent interview. “It is a bible of so much adventure, so many experiences, and relationships that we ourselves have experienced. We take The Little Prince to home and heart because we are reading a book about ourselves.” Scherry believes that the crux of the book comes down to three words: love, loss, and longing, which could no doubt offer an emotional outline for most anyone’s life.
Perhaps it was this vexation with the “human anthill”—which was mired in war and plowing steadily toward the destruction of millions—that led Saint-Exupéry to take a friend’s suggestion and write a children’s book.
But while Scherry sees The Little Prince as an abstract biography of humanity, he also considers it to be the story of one person in particular: its author. There are, of course, certain obvious autobiographical elements in the book. For instance, it is easy to associate the narrator with Saint-Exupéry, who was also a pilot who once crash-landed in the Sahara. But dig a little deeper and it is the little prince who seems to better embody the inner turmoil and existential questioning that plagued the author.
When he wrote his first and only children’s book, Saint-Exupéry was living in New York, an exile from his war-torn native France. (An exhibition on the book and its New York origins is currently on display at The Morgan Library and Museum in Manhattan.) He never learned English, and was dismayed at the political divisions among his fellow Frenchmen as they aligned themselves with either Charles de Gaulle or Philippe Pétain, who headed France’s Vichy puppet government. As Germany closed its grip on France, Saint-Exupéry outlined his estrangement in “An Open Letter to Frenchmen Everywhere,” published in The New York Times Magazine on November 29, 1942:
“France is nothing but a silence; she is lost somewhere in the night with all lights out, like a ship. Her mind and spirit have been absorbed into her physical being. We shall not know even the names of the hostages who tomorrow will die before the German rifles.”
This sense of isolation plays out on the pages of The Little Prince as the young boy, also an exile, wanders through an alien world while yearning for his home, invisible and silent within the night sky. For the prince, the pain of separation from his beloved rose, and the guilt he felt at abandoning her, eventually becomes too much to bear, and he chooses death as a means of salvation. Saint-Exupéry’s separation from France was equally agonizing, and he joined the Free French Air Force despite having aged out of service. In a letter to his wife Consuelo, with whom he had a tortured relationship similar to that of the prince and the rose, Saint-Exupéry wrote, “I cannot bear to be far from those who are hungry, and know only one way to make peace with my conscience, which is to suffer as much as possible.” This heartsick, guilt-wracked decision also resulted in death: while on a mission, Saint-Exupéry’s plane disappeared over the Mediterranean in 1944 and he was never seen again.
There are also traces of Saint-Exupéry in the prince’s bafflement at the ways of adults. “Grown-ups are certainly very strange,” says the little boy after he meets each character in the broken-souled cast he meets while planet-hopping. He is perplexed at the grown-ups’ persistent focus on trivial matters, and their inability to see beyond the surface. It’s a frustration that Saint-Exupéry himself expressed in a piece now found in Wartime Writings, 1939-1944:
“Don’t you understand that somewhere along the way we have gone astray? The human anthill is richer than ever before. We have more wealth and more leisure, and yet we lack something essential, which we find it difficult to describe. We feel less human; somewhere we have lost our mysterious prerogatives.”
Perhaps it was this vexation with the “human anthill”—which was mired in war and plowing steadily toward the destruction of millions—that led Saint-Exupéry to take a friend’s suggestion and write a children’s book. Scherry believes the book was written as a means of catharsis, a format for working through the author’s angst and examining repressed memories. But perhaps it was also simply a means of escaping the horrors of man and instead immersing himself in the gentler, more innocent, world of children.
It would seem obvious that to fully appreciate a children’s book one must remember the magic and joy that childhood held. For The Little Prince however, Scherry believes that one must have had a taste of love, loss, and longing in order to understand its author, and in turn, his most famous creation. “You have to know life to know The Little Prince,” Scherry said. “Then perhaps you know the grief that this man experienced.”