Tag Archives: flight

The Little Prince & His Pilot

little prince sketch

You’ll be bothered from time to time by storms, fog, snow. When you are, think of those who went through it before you, and say to yourself, ‘What they could do, I can do.’

~ Antoine de Saint Exupéry,
Wind, Sand, and Stars, 1939


When I find a piece of history untouched for years (or even decades), a book with a sentimental inscription, a long-ago letter to a loved one far away — these moments are just a few of the special ones which cross my path on a regular basis.  Sometimes it is working with a researcher, especially one searching out bits and pieces of their family history, who makes a discovery about an ancestor previously unknown to them.  Sometimes it happens when I’m teaching.  I’ll see a student learn that the things they have to do sometimes become something they want to do instead.  Or, even more fun, when I work with someone who claims to have no interest in history, and watch them connect with a diary entry of a college student from the 1880s, a newspaper clipping from their hometown from the 1910s, or a photograph of some person or event that speaks to them across the years.  Moments like that are the unexpected joys, the ones that brighten a gray or cold day with sunshine from the inside.

Sometimes there are moments when I reconnect with a piece of my own past. I remember reading The Little Prince as a child and dreaming of flying free, exploring strange planets, and meeting a fox all my very own.  I’ve made a habit of re-reading it every few years, and each time I do, I come away feeling as though I’ve learned something different every time. The Little Prince was first published on this day in 1943, so let’s take a moment to celebrate that character and the pilot who created him.

When I first learned that the author of The Little Prince was a pilot, and that in many ways he was indeed much like the little prince of his book, I was charmed. And I knew I wanted to explore both the prince and the pilot.  Born into an old French noble family, Saint-Exupéry trained as a pilot in the early 1920s, a career which took him far and wide.  Eventually, he flew routes across North Africa, working on the air mail (Aéropostale) route between Toulouse and Dakar.  He was stationed at Cape Juby airfield, in South Morocco, inside the Sahara Desert for a number of years before directing the Aéropostale in Argentina.  During World War II, he flew reconnaissance flights, and, in fact, was on one such flight when he disappeared in 1944.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, pilot

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, pilot

Doing this research gave me the opportunity to delve into his other writing.  Many of these books are centered on his experiences as a pilot, including his first major work in 1931, Vol de nuit (Night Flight).  In 1935, he and his navigator were nearing the end of a long flight when they crashed in the Libyan portion of the Sahara Desert.  His memoir of survival, Wind, Sand and Stars, harbors echos of his future story of a little prince.  Other works included Flight to Arras, which dealt with a troubling reconnaissance mission, and the posthumously published work, The Wisdom of the Sands.

What was most interesting to me, however, was trying to reconcile the adventurous and somewhat undisciplined pilot, an aviation pioneer in many respects, with the lyrical, charming, and even sentimental, writer.  The two worlds don’t usually mix.  But he did, and he did it well at that. Reading his detailed story of surviving the crash in the desert brought home the crash of the little prince.  And learning of the pilot’s mysterious disappearance (although somewhat less mysterious now) helped understand the departure of the Little Prince.  As Saint-Exupéry himself wrote, “flying and writing are one and the same for me.”

It seems both brought him some bit of joy. Doing this research brought moments of joy to my world – the chance to re-read a favorite book, and the opportunity to bring a bit of it to life in the story of its author. Stop by the Galvin Rare Book Room to see our 1943 French edition of The Little Prince and our beautiful 1942 numbered and signed edition of Flight to Arras, as pictured below.

Kitty Hawk

Still I must have known,
Something in me told me,
Flight would first be flown….
Off these sands of time.

~ Robert Frost, “Kitty Hawk”

Kitty Hawk cover

Kitty Hawk, by Robert Frost

On December 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the Wright Brothers achieved success in their desire to fly. The Wright Flyer was the first powered, heavier-than-air machine to achieve controlled sustained flight with a pilot aboard. Having moved to Richmond from Dayton, Ohio, home of the Wright Brothers, I was delighted to discover “Kitty Hawk” by Robert Frost tucked away in our rare book collection.

This little gem of a book was published as one in a series of Christmas keepsake booklets produced by the publishing firm of Henry Holt and Company. Using Frost’s poem, “Christmas Trees,” in 1934, Holt began an annual custom of sending Robert Frost Christmas booklets. With the exception of the war years of 1939-1944, the Frost/Holt holiday booklet tradition lasted from 1937 until 1962. Although sometimes they used poems which had been previously published, Frost frequently created a new piece especially for the occasion. In 1956, Frost and Holt decided to use a previously unpublished work, “Kitty Hawk,” for the booklet.

Four distinct versions of the poem are known to exist. The first one, at only 128 lines, was published as the 1956 holiday booklet. In November 1957, Frost published a much longer version, at 432 lines. The third version, which incorporated lines from each of the previous versions, appeared in the March 21, 1959, The Saturday Review. The final version, wedding old and new material, was added to his 1962 work, In The Clearing.

Frost was only 29 years old when the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, and his interest in flying appeared periodically in his work, often referring to the brothers as “the Columbuses of the air.” In his 1936 book, A Further Range, one poem was titled, “The Wrights’ Biplane.” Frost and Orville Wright were friends until Wright’s death in 1948.

The poem itself actually documents an earlier visit to Kitty Hawk made by Frost in 1894, which is listed inside as a subtitle on the piece. Kitty Hawk Frost described the poem in a 1959 interview published, along with the poem, in the 1959 The Saturday Review:

I’ve been gathering together the poems for the book. The main one is “Kitty Hawk,” which is a longish poem in two parts. Part One is a sort of personal story, an adventure of my boyhood. I was down there once when I was about 19. Alone, just wandering. Then I was invited back sixty years later. That return after so long a time suggested the poem to me. I used my own story of the place to take off into the story of the airplane. I make a figure of speech of it: How I might have taken off from my experience of Kitty Hawk and written an immortal poem, but how, instead, the Wright brothers took off from there to commit an immortality….

With Frost’s charming poem and woodcuts by Antonio Frasconi, the Holt booklet is simply charming. “Kitty Hawk” is housed in the Galvin Rare Book Room, and we hope you’ll come and explore this unexpected and beautiful piece.