I spent part of the summer of 2012 reading — and falling deeply in love with — Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. Talk about perfect timing: soon after I finished reading that book, The Black Count was released to great critical acclaim and went on to win the 2013 Pulitzer in the Biography or Autobiography category. Tom Reiss dug into a historical figure who’s been largely forgotten: Dumas’s father, General Alex Dumas.
Although Alexandre Dumas (the author) would grow up experiencing poverty and racism, his father’s rise through the ranks during the French Revolution are almost inconceivable. General Dumas was born in Saint-Domingue (what is now Haiti), the son of a slave and a plantation owner. His father doted on him and took him to live in France, and though General Dumas would eventually renounce his father, he came of age during an idealistic period in France where he was afforded opportunities that were unheard of for people of mixed-blood everywhere else in the world. An intelligent and skilled fighter, he rose up from his station as a lowly officer to become a general in the French Revolution fighting alongside Napoleon. And though Dumas proved himself time and again as a leader on the battlefield, it was ultimately Napoleon who would be his undoing (in fact, it was also Napoleon who helped dismantle all of the laws that had helped people of color).
Though General Dumas was often away from his family, often stationed in far away lands that included treacherous snow-covered mountains and the deadly deserts of Egypt, he deeply loved his wife and children. Alexandre Dumas was still a young boy when his father died, but he had spent enough time with his father to hear all about his adventures and hardships; his father was a hero of mythical proportions in his eyes. He embellished stories about his father, and General Dumas’s last big military journey would become the basis for The Count of Monte Cristo (his father — who was also imprisoned in isolation for a long time — being Edmond Dantes, while Napoleon became the inspiration for the villainous Villefort). Elements of General Dumas also pop up in other works such as The Three Musketeers. His son clearly adored him.
And so it was up to Reiss not only to parse through the lost pages of history, but also to figure out how much of Alexandre Dumas’s stories were true. It was fascinating to see Reiss compare, say, excerpts from Dumas’s memoir to a more accurate reconstruction of the events that actually happened. With so much lost to time, I was impressed by how much history Reiss was able to recover and piece together. His end result is a vivid and highly readable text that contextualizes some of the effects of slavery on Haitian and French societies, the causes behind the French Revolution, and reconstructs the life of a man who was larger than life but was unfairly relegated to the footnotes of history for so long.
The Black Count was published in September 2012 by Crown Publishing, an imprint of Random House.