by Tom Reiss
New York: Crown/Random House, 2012. Pp. x, 414.
Maps, notes, biblio., index. $27.00. ISBN: 030738246X
The Black Count
is a biography of the first
Alexandre Dumas, the father of the novelist Alexandre Dumas pere, who began life in 1762 as the
illegitimate offspring of a French nobleman and a Haitian slave woman and after numerous adventures became perhaps the first black general in the French army by his death, in 1806.
Journalist and author Reiss combed thousands of documents, letters, and other sources to collect material on which to base a very detailed life of the eldest Dumas, a
man who led a life in numerous ways far more impressive than any of his son’s characters, educated, a superb swordsman and veritable lion in battle, dedicated republican, and more, arguably inspiring the those very characters. But Reiss didn’t stop there. He fits Dumas into his times and his social environment. So we get discussions of the brutalities of slavery and racism in the “Ancien Régime” and later in the supposed Egalite of the French Republic. We see the dying monarchy, the Revolution that finished it off, and Bonaparete's empire which brought things part way back to their start again. There are numerous battles and campaigns. Reiss also gives us little portraits of numerous individuals, the general’s family, of course, but also soldiers and rulers such as Carnot, Kleber, French and Neapolitan royals, Lafayette, and more, including Bonaparte, who in the end becomes his 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 one’s characters.
The work is not without faults. Reiss is apparently overly fond of Revolutionary France, and fails to see its dark side. For example, he neglects the corruption of French officials, both at home and in occupied territories, the widespread plundering of occupied areas, and the frequent widespread atrocities committed by French troops, which often sparked resistance from the very people the Revolution claimed to be liberating.
The Black Count
is an excellent biography, well crafted, with a flowing narrative that makes for an easy read.