The French novelist and essayist Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900-1944), a pioneer commercial pilot, more than any other writer can be regarded as the poet of flight.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was born in Lyons on June 29, 1900; he attended Jesuit schools in France and Switzerland. He was a poor and unruly student but took great interest in the rapidly developing science of flight. In 1921 he began military service and learned to fly, later being commissioned as an air force officer. After 3 years in business, Saint-Exupéry became a commercial pilot in 1926, flying first from France to Morocco and West Africa. From his experiences he drew the novel that launched his literary career in 1929, Courrier Sud (Southern Mail). Here he portrays the pilot's solitary struggle against the elements and his sense of dedication to his vocation, stronger even than love.
In 1929 Saint-Exupéry was transferred to Buenos Aires, and he married in 1931. The same year he published his second book, Vol de nuit (Night Flight). Again the theme is the pilot's devotion to duty, and although, as in Courrier Sud, it ends in his death, this is seen not as defeat but as victory, a step forward in man's conquest of his environment. For Saint-Exupéry there are higher values than human life, and the novel achieves an almost tragic intensity.
During the following years Saint-Exupéry pursued his flying career, despite several crashes, but published no more books until 1939, when he brought out Terre des hommes (Wind, Sand and Stars). Less a novel than a series of essays containing the pilot's meditations, poetic in tone, on the spiritual aspects of the adventure of flight, it brought Saint-Exupéry to the height of literary fame.
In 1939 Saint-Exupéry rejoined the French air force and was decorated for bravery in 1940. After the French defeat, he went to the United States, where he wrote Pilote de guerre (Flight to Arras), published in 1942. This is the record of a reconnaissance mission in May 1940, during the German invasion of France, and the author's almost miraculous survival against enormous odds. In 1943 he rejoined his unit in North Africa, fighting with the Free French; although now overage, he insisted on undertaking reconnaissance missions. On July 31, 1944, his aircraft disappeared near Corsica, probably shot down by a German fighter; no trace was ever discovered.
Other works of Saint-Exupéry include a children's story, Le Petit prince (1943; The Little Prince); a long philosophical work published posthumously, Citadelle (1948; The Wisdom of the Sands); and volumes of correspondence and notebook jottings.
Curtis Cate, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: His Life and Times (1970), is an excellent biography. Other studies, biographical as much as literary, include Richard Rumbold and Lady Margaret Stewart, The Winged Life (1955); Maxwell A. Smith, Knight of the Air: The Life and Works of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1956); and Marcel Migeo, Saint-Exupéry (trans. 1961). A good short study of him is in Henri Peyre, French Novelists of Today (1967).
Saint-Exupéry, Antoine de, Wind, sand and star, London, Heine-mann, 1970.
Nicolson, Harold George, Sir, Sainte-Beuve, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978.