A Child of Exile in America at War

By Scott Eaton, Humanities to Go presenter                      

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; the essential is invisible to the eye.” This is the moral of the book The Little Prince by the French writer-aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900-1944), and next year will mark the 75th anniversary of its publication. Sometimes described as a “children’s story for adults” because of its underlying themes, The Little Prince on one level is a simple fairy tale: A child prince from another planet who comes to Earth after a lover’s quarrel with the rose he cares for but eventually decides to return when he realizes that he is still responsible for his rose. The Little Prince was written during Saint-Exupéry’s wartime exile in America after his beloved France was defeated by the Germans in June 1940. The book was released in both English and French editions in April 1943, but its message has transcended the circumstances of its creation and still resonates with readers 75 years later—in 300 languages.

A combat veteran as a reconnaissance pilot with the French Air Force, Saint-Exupéry had arrived in New York on New Year’s Eve, 1940, at the invitation of his American publisher, to pick up the National Book Award he had won in 1939 for Wind, Sand and Stars, based largely on his experiences as a French air mail pilot. Intending to stay just a few weeks, Saint-Exupéry ultimately remained for two years and four months, mostly in the New York City area where he wrote three books, the most famous of which would be The Little Prince. Estranged from his wife, and separated by the war from his family and close friends, Saint- Exupéry wanted just to return to active service. During times of distress or loneliness Saint-Exupéry often expressed in his books a longing for home and childhood, and this nostalgia is especially evident in The Little Prince.   

Pamela L. Travers, the author of the “Mary Poppins” series, was one of the few reviewers in 1943 who understood the book’s deeper truth as a spiritual journey disguised as a children’s story:  

“We cannot go back to the world of childhood… But perhaps there is a way of going forward to it. Or better still, of bearing it along with us; carrying the lost child in our arms so that we may measure all things in terms of that innocence. Everything Saint- Exupéry writes has that sense of heightened life that can be achieved only when the child is still held by the hand.” 

Saint-Exupéry managed to return to active service as a pilot with the Free French in North Africa in the spring of 1943 just as The Little Prince was coming off the presses. He disappeared on a reconnaissance mission in July 1944, but continues to live through his work. As the Little Prince said, “I will look as if I were dead, but that will not be true."

Scott Eaton’s Humanities to Go program “Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: The Man Who Wrote The Little Prince” is just one of the 450 Humanities to Go programs that bring 15,000-plus NH residents together in more than 150 local community settings to learn together on topics that challenge, enlighten, and engage. To learn more about hosting this or another program in your community, visit www.nhhumanities.org/humanitiestogo.