If April has you in the mood to go on a pilgrimage, be sure to visit “The Little Prince: A New York Story” at the Morgan Library before it closes at the end of the month. The exhibit offers a glimpse at the creative process behind Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beloved book and celebrates its New York origins.
Originally published in 1943, The Little Prince tells the story of a little intergalactic traveler, his adventures on various planets, and his interactions with a downed pilot who comes to love him. Part children’s story, part fable, the book’s wisdom (along with Saint-Exupéry’s iconic illustrations) has drawn millions of readers since it was published.
Visitors entering the exhibit first pass by a display of Saint-Exupéry’s military ID bracelet. A fighter pilot with the French Air Force, Saint-Exupéry wrote The Little Prince in New York during a brief hiatus from the war following the French armistice with the Germans. In 1943, he rejoined the war through the Free France Air Force. His tour of duty was short-lived: In 1944, he set out on a reconnaissance flight from which he never returned. His bracelet was recovered in 1998 from a fishing net in the Mediterranean, and serves as a memorial to the author who—like the Little Prince himself—disappeared into thin air.
The Morgan exhibit uses twenty-five manuscript pages and forty-three drawings to illustrate the evolution of the Little Prince. Beginning as one of Saint-Exupéry’s boyhood doodles, the Little Prince appeared on many of his personal letters. Sometimes wearing wings, sprouting a bow-tie, and occasionally balding, the Little Prince eventually became the little blonde boy with a long scarf in the book.
That little boy cared quite a lot about getting drawing details just right. In the book, the Little Prince forces the pilot to draw four versions of a sheep before deciding that one (actually a drawing of a box in which a sheep lives) is satisfactory. Saint-Exupéry seems to have based the Little Prince’s critiques on his own self-criticism—the walls of the gallery are lined with discarded renditions of many illustrations. One or two are badly wrinkled, having apparently been crumpled in frustration.
Saint-Exupéry treated the text with similar painstaking attention to detail. Heavily marked pages reflect his labors to cut the original 30,000 words draft by draft down to the final 14,000. Many characters never made it into the book—a shopkeeper who writes “slogans that are easy to remember,” a couple at dinner who tell the Little Prince that “you can’t invite yourself to people’s houses like that,” and an inventor whose machine can grant any wish were all cut. Several drafts of the book referred to Manhattan or Long Island, but Saint-Exupéry eventually edited out such specific references.
Seen alongside his letters, Saint-Exupéry’s revisions look more like self-doubt than careful hard work. The wistful sadness of his letters hints at his identification with the pilot’s loneliness and the Little Prince’s anxiety. In one letter on display, Saint-Exupéry wrote to a friend:
If I knew how to write letters I would write you a long letter but four or five years ago I turned into an idiot and I no longer know how to communicate very well. I hate myself.
In another, a drawing of the Little Prince sent to a female ambulance driver and Red Cross officer Saint-Exupéry had met on a train ride in North Africa, the Little Prince plaintively says, “C’est triste . . . on ne pense pas a me telephoner.” (“It’s a pity . . . it never occurs to you to call me.”)
Though he had achieved critical acclaim for an earlier work, Saint-Exupéry would probably be surprised by the amount of attention paid to his papers today. Before leaving New York, he gave his friend Silvia Hamilton a paper bag accompanied by a note. “I’d like to give you something splendid, but this is all I have,” he wrote. Inside the bag were the drawings that make up this exhibit.
He would be surprised, too, at the variety and adoration of the crowd at the Morgan. Many of the adults viewing the exhibit this past Saturday appeared old enough to have been children in 1943. Younger couples lingered at each plaque, holding hands, and whispering to each other. Small children darted in and out of the crowd at each display, sketching their own versions of tiny planets and wise foxes and listening to their parents’ earnest explanations of What It All Means. The whole gallery was hushed with a reverence beyond the semi-religious atmosphere often found in museums.
In her review of The Little Prince, P. L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins, wrote, “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.”
She was right. These museum-goers were there because The Little Prince taught them something. Maybe it was that “what makes the desert beautiful is that it hides a well somewhere.” Maybe it’s the importance of rite, “another thing that’s been too often neglected,” as a wise fox tells the Little Prince. Or maybe it’s that being a serious man is overrated and that a rose can be important.
In perhaps his most famous line, the Little Prince tells the pilot that “one sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.” Curating an exhibit for a book themed on the importance of the unseen is a challenge, but the Morgan Library has at least created an atmosphere where The Little Prince’s fans can remember that the invisible does exist. For a secular pilgrimage, that’s pretty good.
Bria Sandford is an assistant editor at the Portfolio, Sentinel, and Current imprints of Penguin Random House. The Morgan Library’s Little Prince exhibit will remain open through April 27. Image from the Morgan Library.