Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Black Count

All over the world, Alexandre Dumas is recognized as one of the titans of French literature.  The swashbuckling adventures found in his works like The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, and The Man in the Iron Mask portray a world of honor, betrayal, love, and friendship.  But though his stories are some of Western civilization's most famous, few people realize that many of their most famous elements are based on the character and exploits of one very real person...his father, General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas. In his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, Tom Reiss seeks to tell the general's story and to reveal how his larger than life presence impacted his son and the art he was to create.

Thomas-Alexandre Dumas was born in the French sugar colony of Saint Domingue, the son of a French aristocrat and a his black slave.  At the age of 14, his father sold him and three other siblings into slavery in order to raise funds for passage back to France.  He was later repurchased by his father and then raised in France.  He received the education of any French noble, mastering the arts of fencing, riding and literature.  But as his father's fortune dwindled due to lavish spending on a new wife, Dumas assumed his mother's name and enlisted in the French military.  It wasn't long before he distinguished himself as a member of the Queens Dragoons.  As the old regime fell and France was swept up in revolution, Dumas took advantage of the new found freedoms and rose higher and higher, eventually reaching the rank of General of the French Army.  But Dumas' fortunes, like those of France, were soon to be forever changed by an intelligent and ruthless man from Corsica.

I found this book to be extremely fascinating.  I have always loved Dumas' work, but I had no idea that so many of his stories, especially The Count of Monte Cristo, were based on his father's life.  And General Dumas' story in many ways rivals those of his son's creation.  It is obvious that, though raised as an aristocrat, he is very much a man of the Republic.  He firmly holds on to the ideals of the revolution, even when others twist them for their own use, or seek to undermine them.  He is also a consummate leader and warrior, garnering the respect of his men and overcoming some of the most difficult situations that can be thrown at a soldier.  His rise in the army is meteoric.  In fact, he was the highest ranking black commander in a white army until Colin Powell became a four-star general in 1989.

But the story the Reiss tells here is not just Dumas', but also the story of all people of color in revolutionary France.  France was one of the first European powers to pass laws against slavery, even though it's rich sugar colonies were firmly built on them.  This allowed blacks and people of mixed race to rise as high in French society as whites, and for their children to be educated alongside them.  And the revolution extended the idea of liberty and equality to all Frenchmen, allowing Dumas to not only command a white army, but also to marry a white woman.  Unfortunately, even as these ideals crumbled before Napoleon's ambition, so did the freedoms of blacks all over France.  Eventually, slavery would be brought back to the French colonies.  It is all too obvious that the reason so few people, French or otherwise, know anything about Dumas is because of racism.

As a non-fiction book, this reads very easily.  Reiss packs in a lot of information, but delivers it in such a fun and adventurous way that you feel as if you are reading a novel.  His writing is easily read and well paced, allowing even the least scholarly among us to grasp what is happening.  It also really helped me understand the timeline of the French Revolution as well as the many issues the caused it to happen.

I highly recommend this book to anyone.  If you love the works of Dumas, or are interested in the French Revolution, military history, race relations in France, or the French sugar colonies then you could do far worse than to read this.  It is certainly a wonderful tribute to a man whose contribution to French history has been all but forgotten.      

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