Saint-Exupéry, Antoine de (1900–1944)

views updated



French writer and aviator.

Born in Lyons, France, into an aristocratic family in somewhat straitened circumstances and educated in Catholic institutions, Antoine-Marie-Roger de Saint-Exupéry lost his father when he was four years old and did not shine at school. Uncertain about a career, he learned to fly during his military service, having failed the naval academy's entrance examination. Subsequently he worked as a pilot, alongside such celebrated aviators as Jean Mermoz and Henri Guillaumet, for the commercial companies that in 1927 became Aéropostale. For a time he covered trans-Mediterranean routes (Toulouse, Casablanca, Dakar); later he pioneered the air link between Buenos Aires and Patagonia. It was in Argentina that he met Consuelo Suncín, with whom he had a passionate and chaotic relationship; the two were married in 1931, but this union did not bring Saint-Exupéry the stability for which he perhaps hoped.

His life was to be a combination of action and writing, turning him into a best-selling author and founder of a new fiction genre, the aerial adventure. His first book was Courrier du Sud (1929; Southern Mail), followed by Vol de nuit (1931; Night Flight) and Terre des hommes (1939; Wind, Sand and Stars). His novels transformed the distinctly accident-prone pilot Saint-Exupéry into a heroic, self-transcending figure, and the plane he flew and the hostile environment he braved likewise became a school of reflection and meditation. "The earth," he wrote in Wind, Sand and Stars, "teaches us more about ourselves than all the books. Because it resists us. Man discovers himself when he measures himself against the obstacle. But for this he needs a tool" (Terre des hommes, p. 1; translated from the French). That tool was the airplane. For Saint-Exupéry the air postal service was in effect a kind of monastery where he learned austerity and self-sacrifice—but also brotherhood and solidarity.

His growing celebrity opened the door to journalism, and Saint-Exupéry made many visits as a reporter to Spain and Germany, where he became aware of the horrors of fascism. In 1939 he joined the air force and the following year arrived in the United States, where his books were best-sellers, especially Wind, Sand and Stars, and in some cases had been made into films, like Night Flight (1933) with John and Lionel Barrymore, Clark Gable, and Robert Montgomery. In 1942 the publication of Flight to Arras (Pilote de guerre, 1942) met with extraordinary success in the United States, where the novel topped the best-seller lists for six months. It was followed by Lettre àunotage (1943; Letter to a Hostage), dedicated to Saint-Exupéry's friend the Jewish novelist Léon Werth, who had stayed in France: "As French as you are, I feel that you are doubly in danger of death, first as a Frenchman, and secondly as a Jew." In exile, Saint-Exupéry proclaimed the necessity of continuing the struggle, despite France's defeat in 1940, and of defending human rights against the onslaught of Hitlerism; he placed all his hopes in an American intervention in the war in Europe. He supported the idea of a union of all the French exiles, but internecine conflicts, personal rivalries, and differences of perception ultimately made this an unattainable goal. Saint-Exupéry was sharply criticized by others in the exile group, notably by André Breton and Jacques Maritain, for his supposed failure to distance himself from the Vichy regime in France. With his romantic and aristocratic vision, Saint-Exupéry found disputes among the French intolerable, and he took refuge in an almost existentialist cult of action: "You reside in your act itself," he wrote. "Your act is you" (Flight to Arras).

Although he was by now overage, he was determined to return to war. He succeeded in this and made many reconnaissance flights over France. It was on one of these missions that he crashed off the French coast on 31 July 1944. His disappearance remained a mystery until his Lockheed Lightning was found in 2000. By the time Saint-Exupéry's last novel, Citadell (Wisdom of the Sands), was published posthumously in 1948, man and myth had become one. His renown would become immense and worldwide—driven, though not immediately, by his children's story Le petite prince (The Little Prince) , which appeared in 1943 in both French and English and has since been translated into some two hundred languages. This story embodies all the power of Saint-Exupéry's humanism, tolerance, and desire to "restore spiritual meaning to humanity" (letter of June 1943). "One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes"—such is the secret imparted by the fox to the little prince about how to become wise in face of the madness of men. In the end it was no doubt because he wore two hats, that of the pilot and that of the writer, that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry became the living embodiment of modern adventure.

See alsoAviation; France; Resistance.


Chadeau, Emmanuel. Saint-Exupéry. Paris, 2000.

Mehlman, Jeffrey. Emigré New York: French Intellectuals in Wartime Manhattan, 1940–1944. Baltimore, Md., 2000.

Schiff, Stacy. Saint-Exupery: A Biography. New York, 1994.

F. Gugelot

About this article

Saint-Exupéry, Antoine de (1900–1944)

Updated About content Print Article


Saint-Exupéry, Antoine de (1900–1944)