Wed September 19, 2012
'The Black Count' Cuts A Fascinating Figure
Originally published on Wed September 19, 2012 8:39 am
The novelist Alexandre Dumas — the one known for penning The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers — is often referred to as "Alexandre Dumas, pere." This is to distinguish him from his son, also a writer, who is identified as "Alexandre Dumas, fils." The thing is, there is an even older Alex Dumas who, while not a professional writer, made quite a name for himself in Revolutionary France. For the father of Alexandre Dumas, pere, the sword was mightier than the pen, and this larger-than-life figure's story heavily influenced the fiction of his literary offspring.
Historian Tom Reiss went to France specifically to uncover the papers and tell the story of this forgotten Dumas, the titular "Black Count" of Reiss' fascinating new book. Thomas-Alexandre (later, simply Alex) Dumas was born in 1762 in Saint-Domingue to a blackguard French aristocrat named Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie and one of his black mistresses. According to Reiss, the island colony — known as the "pearl of the West Indies" — accounted for two-thirds of France's overseas trade in the late 18th century. As such, Saint-Domingue was, in the author's words, "a vast infernal factory where labor never ceased and slaves regularly worked from sunup to past sundown in conditions rivaling the concentration camps and gulags of the twentieth century." It was from this Caribbean charnel house that Davy de la Pailleterie took his mixed-race young son to France for a free life and gentleman's education.
Thomas-Alexandre enjoyed a period of relative equality in pre-Revolutionary France, and Reiss never ceases to remind the reader what a great looking young paragon he was: "His proportions were those of a Greek hero ... and his strength would be compared to Hercules's, though his hands and feet were said to be as delicate as those of the ladies he escorted into town." Thomas-Alexandre came of age at a time when his race was viewed by many in Paris as pleasantly exotic, and his encounters with the period's virulent racism were relatively few.
Thomas-Alexandre's enlistment in the Sixth Regiment of the Queen's Dragoons under the new name of "Alexandre Dumas" signaled a turning point in his life. His new moniker and army career clearly agreed with him, as Dumas rose quickly from lowly private to a heroic general leading an army of 50,000 men. His meteoric and profoundly unlikely rise through the ranks is stranger than fiction, and indeed Dumas, pere mined his father's life for much of his literary material. The son understandably idolized the father, who died when the boy was 4 years old.
What's slightly stranger is the historian Reiss' fawning over his subject. While Alex Dumas is an unquestionably fascinating figure, parts of the book read like an extended fan letter rather than objective, analytical work. It occasionally borders on the hyperbolic, akin to an American's idol worship of George Washington as a man who never lied and single-handedly won the American Revolution.
In Egypt, Dumas' fortunes — like those of The Count of Monte Cristo's Edmond Dantes — run afoul of a certain vindictive Corsican, and his life's story goes from adventure yarn to tragedy. While Napoleon goes on to power and glory, Dumas finds only imprisonment and early death. Throughout the book, Reiss argues that Alex Dumas is an important, criminally neglected historical figure quite apart from his relationship to his famous offspring. Despite Reiss' sometimes overblown regard, it's difficult to argue with him. That a former slave could rise on his merits so far, so fast some seven decades before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation is a truly amazing story, one that needs no literary embellishment.