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In Marshfield, behind the scenes at a revolution

Author Tom Reiss’s reading is part of Winslow House’s summer series.

Author Tom Reiss’s reading is part of Winslow House’s summer series.

The United States celebrates its Independence Day on Thursday, France has Bastille Day on July 14, and Canada celebrated its Independence Day on July 1. Is it any surprise that the 1699 historic Winslow House in Marshfield was inspired to put together a series of programs this month called “Revolutionary July”?

Going beyond national revolutions, the series will look at “all types of wide-reaching change that challenged people’s ideas on society, industry or government,” according to its planners. It “will focus on moments and, more importantly, people who ultimately influenced history.”

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Political and intellectual revolution will be in the air on Monday when best-selling author Tom Reiss tells the story of a forgotten hero whose remarkable life was the basis for the classic adventure tale “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Reiss’s book “The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo” tells the story of Alex Dumas, the real-life son of a disgraced French nobleman and a Haitian slave, who rose to the rank of general during the French Revolution before political enemies (like Napoleon) had him imprisoned.

“When you hear ‘biography’ you think it’s only about the person, but so much of this book covers the period before the French Revolution,” said Kathleen O’Connor, a member of the house’s programming committee and a Marshfield resident. She scheduled Reiss’s appearance even before the book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for biography in April.

For Reiss, writing the book was fulfillment of a childhood passion for “The Count of Monte Cristo,” not only a favorite of his own but of his mother, who as a French orphan came to America clutching her copy.

Researching his book in Europe, Reiss tracked down a safe in a small town in France where he had been told of an archive of materials belonging to Alexandre Dumas, the son of his subject and author of “The Count of Monte Cristo.” However, the one person who knew the safe’s combination had recently died. Employing a safe-cracker, he got the safe open and found the diary and other papers of Alexandre Dumas, confirming that the swashbuckling hero of his romance was based on his father’s life. Reiss knew then that he had the necessary material for his own book.

For Alex Dumas, an ideal of “equality” spoken of by the French and American revolutions included the equality of races. “The revolution means everything for him,” Reiss said. Making the connection between his subject’s times and the American Revolution, Reiss said, “The French revolutionaries looked to Boston.”

As a child Dumas was sold into slavery — “pawned actually,” Reiss said — by his father to raise money to return to France. His father later bought him back and brought him to France, where he was trained in the best fencing school, became an expert swordsman, and rose in the French military. But he did not forget the experience of slavery. He commanded a troop of mixed-race swordsmen during the revolution and became Napoleon’s cavalry commander during the ill-fated Egyptian campaign before a rift resulted in Dumas’s languishing for two years in a dungeon. He died in 1806, probably from the effects of a poison he was given in prison, and his contributions were forgotten.

“That’s the big take-away from my research,” Reiss said last week. The true story of Alex Dumas, a leading figure in the French Revolution who commanded armies to defend the infant French republic, had been largely lost to history.

His book has been widely praised by historians and intellectuals including Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who wrote: “No one who reads this magnificent biography will be able to read ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ or any history of slavery in the New World in the same way again.”

Major social and industrial changes are the subject of Weymouth author Stephen Puleo’s program on July 11 on his latest book, “A City So Grand,” the story of Boston’s emergence in the latter half of the 19th century as one of the world’s great metropolises. Puleo’s previous books on New England history include “Dark Tide” and “The Boston Italians.”

Revolutionary War America is the setting for “Defiant Brides: The Untold Story of Two Revolutionary-Era Women & the Radical Men They Married,” the Winslow House’s July 16 offering. Author Nancy Rubin Stuart will tell the story of Peggy Shippen, the English upper-class bride of Benedict Arnold.

O’Connor became a volunteer at the Winslow House after wondering why the house was flying a British flag. The answer is the Winslows were a loyalist family. “We were intrigued,” she said. “We got sucked into it. In the Winslow House, local history leads to international history.”

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com.
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