Fans of Le Petit Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's novella about a pilot who crashes in the desert, where he encounters a young boy from distant planet B-612, can likely recite the book's most famous line, spoken by a fox to the boy, by heart: "What is essential is invisible to the eye." But Saint-Exupéry, who wrote the novel while in exile in New York City after the outbreak of World War II, didn't come by the phrase easily.
The manuscript of Le Petit Prince, which was acquired by the Morgan Library & Museum in 1968 and displayed at an exhibition there earlier this year, shows that he played around quite a bit with his most famous book's most famous line—and with the rest of the story, as well. "Saint-Exupéry was always revising and refining," says Christine Nelson, Drue Heinz Curator of Literary and Historical Manuscripts at the Morgan. "The Morgan manuscript reveals that he had a clear sense of the overall shape and tone of the story, but he rewrote and honed individual sentences and episodes. There's no way to know for sure why he made certain creative decisions—such as the final formulation of the 'essential' line—but we can see that certain versions read more gracefully."
Could you imagine the fox saying "Ce qui compte est toujours invisible" (What matters is always invisible) or "Le plus important est invisible" (What is most important is invisible)? Saint-Exupéry tried both of those, and many more. Nelson shared 11 other phrases that the author tried before finally choosing "l’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.”
1. Mais ce qui compte est invisible.
"But what matters is invisible."
2. Mais l’essentiel est toujours invisible.
"But what is essential is always invisible."
3. Ce qui est important est toujours invisible.
"What is important is always invisible."
4. Le plus important demeure invisible.
"What is most important remains invisible."
5. Ce qui est important ça ne se voit pas.
"What is important cannot be seen."
6. Ce qui compte ne se voit pas.
"What matters cannot be seen."
7. Ce qui est tellement joli n’est pas pour les yeux.
"Something that lovely is not for the eyes."
8. Ce qui est important, ça ne se voit pas.
"What is important, that cannot be seen."
9. Ce qui se voit ça ne compte pas.
"What can be seen does not matter."
10. L’important est toujours ailleurs.
"What is important is always somewhere else."
11. Ce qui est le plus important c’est ce qui ne se voit pas.
"What is most important is that which cannot be seen."
Saint-Exupéry finished The Little Prince in October 1942; it was published in the United States in early 1943, just as the author and pilot left the country to rejoin his squadron in Algiers. He gave the heavily edited manuscript to his friend Silvia Hamilton, whose black poodle had served as the model for the book's sheep (Saint-Exupéry also drew The Little Prince's illustrations).
Sadly, Saint-Exupéry didn't live to see what would become his most famous work published in his native country. He disappeared in July 1944 while performing a solo reconnaissance flight in a P-38 Lightning; his ID bracelet was brought up in a fisherman's net off the coast of Marseille in 1998.