Once upon a time, somewhere on this very planet, a simple, yet utterly accurate secret was revealed from one fox to a tiny visiting prince of another world:
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Whoever would have thought that it would take a talking fox within a children’s tale to so simply sum up the human condition? This fox, of course, belongs to none other than Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s famous French tour de force, The Little Prince. The Morgan Library and Museum of New York City has turned Saint-Exupéry’s beloved tale, and the stories behind it, into an exhibit, The Little Prince: A New York Story. If you’re like me, and often gaze at the stars, perhaps wondering if a particular sheep has eaten a certain rose, then you’re sure to enjoy this exhibit as I have (oh-so-very-much).
2014 marks the 70th Anniversary of Le Petit Prince, or as most of us know it, The Little Prince. Since its inception, the tale has been translated into some 250 languages and consistently sold over 1.8 million copies a year. It has inspired films, sequels, museums, opera, ballet, and as the exhibition demonstrates, even a screenplay that Orson Welles wanted to film, featuring the special effects of Walt Disney. The point that I’m trying to make is that this beguiling little story, intended for children but adored by all, has come a long way. The Morgan’s retelling of its foundation only adds more merit to its appeal.
Christine Nelson, curator of literary and historical manuscripts at the Morgan, has focused not only on the book, but also its origins. “Because the manuscript brings you back to the moment of creation, we wanted to set the exhibition in the place and time of creation,” she says. “It focuses on the emergence of this work in New York during the war. [Saint-Exupéry] was writing it just within miles of where this exhibition is being shown.”
The exhibit puts on display a wealth of artifacts and tells the stories that lie behind them, providing a fresh look at the life Saint-Exupéry lived in the early 1940s, and of the people whom influenced his work’s creation during this time. For example, just before rushing off to rejoin his old air force squadron in the war, Saint-Exupéry dropped off a 140 page draft manuscript, in a crumpled brown paper bag, to his friend Silvia Hamilton (of which the famous Fox was modelled after). 25 pages of this very handwritten manuscript, complete with cigarette burns and coffee stains, form the core of the Morgan’s exhibition. These excerpts provide a fascinating glimpse into how different the story could have ended up, had they not come to be riddled with all the scribbles, scratches, rewrites and reworks they now bear. It also portrays an interesting look into the creative process behind a timeless masterpiece.
The pages of the manuscript are joined along with 43 pieces of Saint-Exupéry’s drawings and watercolors, as well as personal letters, photographs, and artifacts collected from all over the world. Of these is one of particular importance, Saint-Exupéry’s silver identity bracelet bearing the address of Reynal & Hitchcock, the firm that published his book, and of the owners he was very good friends with (he wrote parts of the tale while residing in their homes). This bracelet was found snagged in a fishing net off the coast of Marseilles in 1998 and was the first piece of evidence towards the aviator’s demise, some 50 years prior. Sadly, Saint-Exupéry never lived to see his book published in France, as he was believed to have lost his life while piloting a reconnaissance flight in 1944, weeks before the liberation of Paris.
Now, I could ramble all day and night about how much I love this book, how it has impacted me, and how fantastic the Morgan’s exhibit of it all is, but I’ll spare you and only urge that you go discover for yourself. That is, not before making one remark, which I have touched upon in the past. The idea of designating certain types of creativity as “children’s” is a choice entirely arbitrary and made entirely by adults. The Little Prince’s spite for “grown-ups” is no better a representation of this very notion. To neglect something based on it being a “children’s story” or “childish art” is tragedy—in doing so, one puts a cage around their mind and risks limiting their very own humanity. “All grown-ups were once children… But only few of them remember it,” remarks Saint-Exupéry; try not to forget, you’ll only be better for it.
The exhibit makes reference to a 1943 review of The Little Prince in the New York Herald Tribune by P.L. Travers (author of the Mary Poppins books). She wrote that “[The Little Prince] will shine upon children with a sideways gleam” and “strike them in some place that is not the mind and glow there until the time comes for them to comprehend it.” A better statement could not have been said about the lasting impact The Little Prince has had on all of us. The Little Prince: A New York Story is on exhibit through till April 27th.