Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (sahn-tayg-zew-pay-ree), born in Lyons, France, on June 29, 1900, joined the French Army Air Force in 1921. After serving as a pilot, he left the Air Force in 1926 and became a commercial pilot, flying routes from France to West Africa and South America. At the same time, he began to write about flying, producing a novel, Southern Mail, in which a young French aristocrat, full of impossibly romantic notions, faces the realities of life and an unhappy love affair through the discipline of flying. In his next novel, Night Flight, Saint-Exupéry further emphasized the importance of flying by establishing a conflict between the questlike dangerous missions that characterized night flying and the sheltered comforts of home and domesticity. These novels showed his mastery of a rich, dense, powerfully poetic style well-suited to conveying his thoughts about flying and humankind.
For several years during the mid-1930’s, Saint-Exupéry had difficulty getting a job flying. He became a foreign correspondent, covering the 1935 May Day celebration in Moscow, the 1936 start of the Spanish Civil War, for L’Intransigeant, and the 1937 siege of Madrid for Paris-Soir. These experiences deepened both his political and religious interest so that by the time he began to write Wind, Sand, and Stars he had switched from the novel to an autobiographical essay form. André Gide, who was a strong admirer of Saint-Exupéry, is believed to have suggested this change in form. Wind, Sand, and Stars is more political and religious, more thoughtful and metaphysical, than his earlier work, yet it still reflects his direct experiences, particularly his account of a plane crash in the Sahara Desert, and flying still provides both the form for the book and the necessary function for the author.
When World War II began, Saint-Exupéry returned to the Air Force. Shot down, he managed to escape through Portugal to the United States. He then wrote Flight to Arras, an account of his wartime experiences widely read in the United States as evidence that not all Frenchmen had succumbed to complacency and indifference in the face of the Nazi invasion and Vichy collaboration. He remained in the United States, writing, voicing his convictions about his responsibilities to his fellow human beings and his feelings of unity with his flight crew, his country, and all people, until he was able to rejoin the French forces. In his last days he wrote The Wisdom of the Sands, published posthumously in 1950. This book, though not always smooth or coherent, stands as the most complete account of his ideas. It is a long “prose poem” meditation on God and death and love and humanity’s fate, stressing (in a manner some critics have called Nietzschean) the human need for discipline and creativity engendered by an activity like flying.
Saint-Exupéry has been widely admired for his rich, poetic style and his insight. He received the Prix Femina-Vie Heureuse in 1931 and the Grand Prize of the French Academy in 1939. In the United States and England he was even more famous as a spirited, authentic, and articulate voice of the French Resistance, and as a writer who used creative forms to reveal a sense of purpose and discipline beneath a superficially impersonal human technology. He is perhaps best known internationally as the author and illustrator of The Little Prince, a popular children’s book that many adults have also appreciated through the years.
His death remains a mystery of the war. He was presumed shot down over southern France on July 31, 1944.
Scion of an old, distinguished, and noble Limousin family, Antoine-Marie-Roger de Saint-Exupéry was born in...
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Lyons on June 29, 1900. It might reasonably be said of him, and without insult, that he was surely among the most successful failures of his generation, having experienced severe setbacks in most of his attempted ventures, including aviation. Only his writing career appears to have developed and prospered without undue incident, yet few who knew him in his youth would have foreseen that he would become a writer. A notoriously poor student, Saint-Exupéry failed his entrance examination to the French École Navale (naval academy) and tried thereafter to apply himself to architecture, as he had earlier attempted music. Tempted by aviation ever since his first flight, as a passenger at about the age of twelve, “Saint-Ex” had the good fortune to emerge from his required military service some ten years later as a pilot-officer. Dissuaded from a career in aviation by the family of the woman to whom he was then betrothed, Saint-Exupéry obligingly turned to office work, spending most of his free time in the air. By 1925, he had begun to write about aviation for trade periodicals; the following year, he was engaged by Latécoère’s aviation company, initially as a test pilot and soon thereafter to fly the mail between France and its African colonies.
Following the success of Southern Mail, which is based on his African experiences, Saint-Exupéry at last received a diploma in naval aviation and moved to South America, where he was placed in charge of airmail service for the government of Argentina. Soon after writing and publishing Night Flight in 1931, Saint-Exupéry found himself in charge of a new, reorganized mail route between France and South America; earlier in the same year, he had married Consuelo Suncin de Sandoval, widow of an Argentine journalist. Throughout the 1930’s, despite documentably modest abilities as a pilot, Saint-Exupéry continued his attempt to forge new territories through the air; although frequently lost or injured, or both, he continued to draw comfort and perseverance from the simple fact of his survival, frequently eulogizing fallen aviators less fortunate than he.
To his credit, Saint-Exupéry established several new mail routes before deciding, in 1937, to cover the Spanish Civil War as a journalist; later in that year, however, he was seriously injured in his attempt to forge yet another air route, between New York and Tierra del Fuego. Commissioned a captain of air service during the “phony war” of 1939-1940, Saint-Exupéry repaired soon thereafter to New York, where he conducted experiments on jet propulsion and worked on his manuscripts while awaiting the opportunity for further military service. In May, 1943, he rejoined his former squadron, by then under U.S. command, in North Africa. Hampered by advancing age and the cumulative result of his injuries, Saint-Exupéry was frequently discouraged from flying but chose to ignore the advice of superior officers, both French and American. On July 31, 1944, already well past the limit of flights that had been grudgingly allowed him, he took off from Corsica on “one last” reconnaissance flight over the Alps. At the time of his disappearance, returning toward Corsica, he was wearing the “oak leaves” of a major in the U.S. Army Air Corps.