The French novelist Alexandre Dumas had some African blood, for which he was sometimes vilified; despite his immense popularity in the mid-19th century, hostile critics could publish, “Scratch Monsieur Dumas’ hide and you will find the savage . . . a Negro!” In “The Black Count,” Tom Reiss traces the novelist’s African origins through the story of his father, aspiring to make this biography as riveting as Dumas’s most successful works, like “The Three Musketeers” and “The Count of Monte Cristo.”
The raw material is extremely promising for a thrilling historical epic, sweeping through the French Revolution at home and abroad, and the Napoleonic Empire that followed. The novelist’s French grandfather, Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie, was a minor French nobleman who emigrated to French Saint Domingue (today’s Haiti), where his younger brother was a wealthy sugar planter. The brothers soon quarreled, and Antoine absconded with a handful of slaves from the plantation and disappeared into the colony’s impenetrable mountains. He had four children with a black or mixed-blood woman known as Marie Cessette Dumas, and shortly before his return to France in 1775 he sold the mother and three of the children as slaves. The fourth son, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas Davy de la Pailletrie, was also sold, but “conditionally, with the right of redemption.”
Presumed dead for years, Antoine now claimed the debt-ridden family estate and wrung enough money out of it to repurchase his son. Fourteen when he arrived in France, Thomas-Alexandre studied liberal arts, science, and swordsmanship at the Parisian academy of Nicolas Texier de la Boëssière.
Unlike the Anglophone slave societies, the French system recognized the Euro-African mix as a separate race. Thomas-Alexandre belonged to a sizeable class of colored sons of wealthy colonists, a class whose legal rights and social position fluctuated wildly over the next 30 years. Reiss explains the matter accurately, but often writes as if he didn’t know it; his title and many other scenes imply that Thomas-Alexandre was perceived as Negro, which is unlikely. He was half-African at most, and regarded as “[o]ne of the handsomest men you could ever meet . . . whose . . . frizzy hair recalls the curls of the Greeks and Romans,” though like other members of the French colored class he was sometimes a victim of racial prejudice.
Trained as a military officer, Thomas-Alexandre lacked funds to purchase a commission and so enlisted in the ranks, simplifying his name for this purpose to Alex Dumas. Training, temperament, and his legendary physical prowess made him an exceptional soldier, and in 1789, the French Revolution opened his path into the officer corps. As a mere private he had impressed Marie-Louise Labouret, daughter of an innkeeper in the town of Villers-Cotterêts; with his advancement to lieutenant colonel (and the noble title up his sleeve) he returned three years later to marry her.
On the Belgian frontier he had captured 12 Austrian cavalrymen single-handedly; in the Alps along the Italian border he won an impregnable position by leading a bayonet charge across a glacier; in Italy with Napoleon Bonaparte he held a bridge alone against a “whole squadron.” Dumas’s pride and hot temper sometimes led him toward insubordination; he permanently offended General Berthier, an intermediate commander between himself and Bonaparte. Still worse (from the point of view of little Napoleon) was that in Egypt Dumas, now a brigadier general, was thanks to his commanding stature and bearing generally taken by the enemy to be “the leader of the Expedition.”
Returning by sea from Egypt, Dumas was waylaid in the port of Taranto and held for two years by a renegade Neapolitan army. This wretched imprisonment, Reiss argues, became the basis for his son’s “The Count of Monte Cristo.’’ In France, only Dumas’ wife seemed to feel any urgency about his rescue. The wave of social change he had ridden to glory was well past its peak.
In its most radical phase in 1794, the French Revolution had responded to a successful slave-led revolution in Saint-Domingue by abolishing slavery in all French colonies and according equal rights to all Frenchmen regardless of race. When Dumas limped back to France in 1801, a racist reaction was well underway. Napoleon, now a de facto dictator, restored slavery in Martinique and Guadaloupe, outlawed mixed marriages, and forbade persons of color to enter French territory. Dumas’ heroic achievements were erased by these policies. His health broken by prison, he died at the age of 40.
To tell this tale, Reiss must cover the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, and the rise of Napoleon toward Empire; he does all that with remarkable verve. He also reports many little-known details of 18th century French racial policies. Reiss quotes copiously from the novelist son’s heavily romanticized memoirs of his father and suggests persuasively that the father’s career inspired the son to build “fictional worlds where no wrongdoer goes unpunished and the good people are watched over and protected by fearless, almost superhuman heroes.” Alex Dumas’s best vindication may come from his wife, who wrote when she learned of his release from Taranto, “I promise to avenge myself by proving to you that I know how to love, and that I have always loved you.”Madison Smartt Bell’s most recent book is “The Color of Night.’’ He teaches at Goucher College and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org..