Antoine de Saint-Exupéry drew critical attention early in his short life as perhaps the only pioneer aviator with the soul and talent of a poet. Although several other pilots, including Charles A. Lindbergh himself, had attempted to record on paper their impressions and reflections from the air, only “Saint-Ex,” as his friends came to call him, had the literary skill and sensitivity to produce documents, at first fictionalized, that proved to be of lasting value. Since his plane disappeared off the coast of Corsica in 1944, presumably shot down by German fighters, Saint-Exupéry’s writing has suffered somewhat from both critical and general neglect, perhaps in part because air travel has long since become commonplace. His style, however, remains as fresh and thought-provoking as when his works were first published. Reflective, unobtrusively “classical” in style, and showing erudition lightly worn, Saint-Exupéry’s works appear destined to survive and to be remembered long after they have outlived their “historical” or documentary value.
Both at home and abroad, Saint-Exupéry is perhaps best remembered as the author of The Little Prince, a substantial prose work written and destined for children but one that has found a wide and appreciative audience among adults as well. Perhaps best summarized as an illustrated parable of relativity, or at least of relative importance (thereby recapitulating the author’s major contributions as a writer-pilot), The Little Prince ostensibly recalls the author’s chance encounter, while stranded in the desert, with the child-prince and sole inhabitant of the distant asteroid B-612. The Little Prince is emphatically not a work of science fiction, even in juvenile form: Harking back to the venerable literary tradition of the imaginary voyage, exemplified by such eighteenth century masterpieces as Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes (1721; Persian Letters, 1722), Voltaire’s Le Micromégas (1752; Micromegas, 1753), and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), The Little Prince invites the reader, young or old, to suspend preconceived judgments and view the universe through the oddly perceptive eyes of the ingenuous prince. Somewhat marred for today’s audience (even among the young) by a certain preciosity and triteness of expression, The Little Prince has nevertheless earned the stature of a true classic in the genre, thanks to the genuine wisdom and mature insight only half concealed among its hundred-odd pages.