by Tom Reiss
The life of 'The Black Count' inspired his son to write The Count of Monte Cristo, which I reviewed last year.
Three generations have borne the name of Alexandre Dumas, and each man was a celebrity of France in his day. The best known of the trio is the novelist, the second Dumas, who wrote classic novels like The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. His son was well-known for his writing, too, although his fame came from plays rather than novels. The two are called Alexandre Dumas pere and fils to distinguish them. But before either of these men achieved fame with a pen, their sire Alexandre Dumas gained prominence with a sword. His brilliant military career during the French Revolution is all the more impressive when the first Dumas' origins are considered: he was born the bastard son of a perpetually indebted slaveholder in Saint-Domingue. As a young man, he came to Paris to complete his education and live the pampered life due him as the son of a marquis. But Alexandre Dumas was soon swept up in the ideals of the Revolution, which promised equality and freedom to all men – including colored men, like himself. As an officer in the military, he won battle after battle, while impressing his fellow soldiers with his astonishing strength and presence. Within a few short years, he had become a general, and to this day remains the highest-ranking colored man in the French military. But Dumas' blunt manner ran afoul of a certain diminutive Corsican, and after Napoleon's disastrous Egyptian campaign** Dumas was captured and left to rot in a prison for nearly two years; by the time he returned to France, the freedoms enjoyed by men of color were being severely reduced or outright eliminated. The General died in poverty, but his life remains a testament to his willpower and talent – as well as to a brief period of time in which France allowed colored men the same freedoms as her native-born citizens – and inspired some of French literature's greatest hits.
This 19th century painting was one of the few images I could find of General Dumas.
I first became interested in General Dumas after reading The Count of Monte Cristo, when I heard that some of the stories fantastic elements were actually based on events from the life of the author's father. The more I heard about General Dumas' life, the more curious I became. Here was a man who had risen from the absolute lowest station in life – a slave! A bastard! - to become a leader in Napoleon's army. It seemed impossible. Even more astonishing was that both his son and grandson were prominent writers in France: three successive generations of talented, fascinating men of color living in an age when racism thrived. Something powerful must have been running through that blood!
General Dumas led an extraordinary life, but there hasn't been much attention given to him. Perhaps he would have been forgotten completely were it not for his famous son, who wrote of him in both his own memoirs and in the pages of his books. I believe this biography, which was published late last year, is only the second one printed in English, and it's quite an adventure. To me, it exposed the tumultuous years of French Revolution from a different perspective. I have never before much considered the lives of the colored men and women living in Europe during this time, although I should have thought of them since I knew the French had slaves. If you're looking for a swashbuckling good book that's hard to put down, The Black Count is definitely one you'll want to pick up.
4.5 out of 5 stars
** I reviewed Mirage, a book about the French invasion of Egypt by Nina Burleigh, if you're interested in learning more on that topic.
To read more about The Black Count, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.
Peeking into the archives...today in:
2012: Vacation: Off to Disneyland!
2011: The Tudor Secret by C. W. Gortner
2010: Monsters are taking over the classics!
2009: The Book of Nonsense by David Michael Slater