by Tom Reiss
New York: Random House, Broadway Books, 2013. Pp. x, 414.
Maps, notes, biblio., index. $16.00 paper. ISBN: 0307382478
A biography of the very first Alexandre Dumas, father and grandfather of the novelists of the name, a man of mixed race who, after adventures easily equal to those of his son’s heroes, rose to become the first black general in the French Army.
The “Black Count” of the title began life in 1762, the illegitimate offspring of a French nobleman and a Haitian slave woman. Journalist and author Reiss combed through thousands of documents, letters, and other sources to collect material for this very detailed life of the eldest Dumas, a man far more impressive than any of his son’s characters. Due to his father’s noble rank, as a child and young man Alexandre was well-educated, and became a superb swordsman, a veritable lion in battle, a dedicated republican, and more. Reiss takes the count through numerous battles and campaigns, political and social battles, friendships and clashes with the notables of his age, as he rises to general de division before his death in 1806.
But Reiss didn’t stop there. He fits Dumas into his times and his social environment. So we get a look at the brutalities of slavery and racism under the Ancien Régime and later during the supposedly enlightened French Republic. We see the dying days of the Bourbon monarchy, the Revolution that finished it off, and the rise of Bonaparte’s empire, which brought things part way back to their start again. Reiss also gives us little portraits of many individuals; the general’s family, of course, but also soldiers and rulers such as Carnot, Kleber, the Neapolitan and French royals, Lafayette, and others, including Bonaparte, who would become Dumas’ nemesis. Finally, Reiss looks at how the count’s life shaped that of his son and influenced the latter’s novels, noting traces of the senior Dumas in some of the younger’s characters, notably Edmund Dantes of The Count of Monte Cristo.
The book has some flaws. Reiss betrays a certain over-fondness for Revolutionary France, failing to see its dark side. He neglects the corruption of French officials, both at home and in occupied territories, the widespread plundering of supposedly “liberated” peoples, the slaughter of dissidents, and the widespread atrocities committed by French troops, which often sparked resistance from the very people the Revolution claimed to be liberating. There are, however, flaws common in treatments of the era, and Reiss is commendably more critical of Napoleon, who also tends to get a favorable press.
The Black Count,
which was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in biography, is an excellent work, well-crafted, with a flowing narrative that makes for an easy read.
The Black Count is also available in e-book format, ISBN 978-0-307-95295-0.