A compelling new work by literary detective Reiss (The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life, 2005) tracks the wildly improbable career of Alexandre Dumas’ mixed-race father.
Using records from Gen. Dumas’ final residence and the military archives at the Chateau de Vincennes, the author provides a vivid sense of who Dumas was and how he attained such heights and fell so low after the French Revolution, being nearly forgotten by the time of his death in 1806. The simple answer seems to be racism. Born to an aristocratic French father and a slave mother in Saint-Domingue, Dumas became a general in the French Revolution and served under Napoleon, by turns lauded as a hero and vilified as a black insurgent. Taken prisoner on the way back from Egypt, his health was ruined after two years' imprisonment in Italy. His novelist son paid homage to his father’s legendary stature, manliness, athletic prowess and bravery in his best-known protagonists—e.g., Edmond Dantès in The Count of Monte Cristo and the swashbuckling D’Artagnon in The Three Musketeers. The general’s own father pawned the boy and took him to Paris to make a gentleman of him. Enlisting as a private in the Queen’s Dragoons at age 24, he changed his name to Dumas, his slave mother’s maiden name. Thanks to the republican spirit of the period and to his own dazzling exploits, he was handily promoted, yet as swiftly demoted by Napoleon, who later passed harsh racial laws. He was never provided the military pension allowed him, and his widow and children sank into hardship; Dumas the novelist was excoriated 40 years later for his black ancestry. Reiss eloquently argues the general’s case.
A rarefied, intimate literary study delineating a roiling revolutionary era.