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The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte… (original 2012; edition 2012)

by Tom Reiss

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5607317,987 (4.11)93
Member:rebeccanyc
Title:The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo
Authors:Tom Reiss
Info:New York : Crown Trade, 2012.
Collections:Your library, Favorites of recent years, Read 2013
Rating:
Tags:biography, history, French history, 18th century history, 19th century history

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The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss (2012)

Recently added byBondLamberty, Joanne53, private library, PJ817, lisa.schureman, etbm2003
  1. 10
    The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas père (marieke54)
  2. 10
    Georges by Alexandre Dumas (Artymedon)
    Artymedon: A novel over race relations by Alexandre Dumas who was inspired by Alex Dumas General of the French Revolution and former slave to create his fictional character Georges as narrated by Tom Reiss.
  3. 10
    The Black Jacobins by C. L. R. James (Artymedon)
    Artymedon: The three revolutions that created our modern world are the American the Haitian and the French Revolution. The story of the Black Count is the point of intersection between the three in that they tried and did for a short time create a society based on the principle of equality for man regardless of race, birth or religion. It is also the key for the lecture of Alexandre Dumas' important works [[The Count of Monte-Cristo]] and [[Georges]], the later treating the question of race. That the real father of Dumas, a general of the French revolution be less known that his illustrious son author of the "Three Musketeers" is explained by how the reaction to the French revolution and the counter coup of the Thermidorians followed by that of the strong man of the sugar lobby, Napoleon, reestablished slavery in the Antilles. It is also the story of how and how it failed to do so in St Domingue, where the Black Count was born a slave, prompting the independence of this nation as black and mulatto only Haiti followed by its economic blocade by the rest of the world. Tom Reiss not only writes wonderfully be he also researched his subject in the Castle of Vincennes France and in the Dumas archives in Villers-Cotteret because this extraordinary Black Count, unlike Edmond Dantes, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, really existed.… (more)
  4. 00
    Monsieur de Saint-George: Virtuoso, Swordsman, Revolutionary: A Legendary Life Rediscovered by Alain Guede (goddesspt2)
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"The Count of Monte Cristo" was one of my favorite childhood books, so to be able to read the story of the man whose life was the basis for the fictitious Count immediately caught my interest. The life of the Black Count was as complex and exciting as Edmund Dante's and full of glory. He was always true to the cause of the Revolution and his career and life were destroyed by men who used the cause for their own gain. Luckily for us his son Alexander Dumas recreated him in many of his characters and gave Tom Reiss some of the material he needed to write his story.
Worth the read. ( )
  Joanne53 | Aug 23, 2014 |
This is the story of General Alexander Dumas, father of the novelist Alexander Dumas. I was amazed to learn that in pre-revolutionary France, racism against blacks was almost non-existent. In spite of the fact that French colonies in the West Indies kept black slaves, the law of France was that any slave of any nation who set foot on French soil was immediately free. Alexander Dumas was the son of a French Aristocrat and his black mistress in the West Indies. He came to France with his father, and was raised as an aristocrat himself. Later, he rejected his father, adopted his mother's name, and set out on his own. After joining the French army as an enlisted man, he made his way to General purely by his own merits. He married a white middle-class French lady. Her family was tremendously pleased with the marriage, seeing a General in the Army as quite a catch. The fact that he was black seemed to make no difference to them one way or the other. In the parish records where they were married, it isn't even mentioned. During and after the French Revolution, things took turns for the worse, and prejudice against blacks began to develop, and become legalized. Dumas died unhappy and largely forgotten. This biography is a splendid tribute to a great man. ( )
  fingerpost | Aug 13, 2014 |
2013 Pulitzer Prize for Biography; PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography

Behind the Iron Mask
Peter Brooks
May 23, 2013 Issue
NYRB

As a boy I wanted above all other professions to be a musketeer. After Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, read to me by my father, I carried on myself with the sequels, Twenty Years After, The Man in the Iron Mask. They were, though I didn’t want to admit it, a bit disappointing: somehow the verve of d’Artagnan and his companions had grown old and gone darker. Then someone gave me the same writer’s The Count of Monte Cristo. It was the longest book I had ever held in my hands. It filled the whole of a summer, in one of those reading experiences best described by Proust, where the fictional became a screen between self and reality, a bright mist that made the ordinary both trivial and tolerable. Some of its 1,500 pages eluded me—various slow-acting poisons and exotic narcotics were hard to follow over the many chapters it took them to work their mischief. But the nightmare imprisonment of Edmond Dantès in the Château d’If in Marseilles harbor, his escape self-sewn into the shroud prepared for his companion the Abbé Faria, then his return in multiple disguises to wreak vengeance on his persecutors were, and remain, unforgettable.

Alexandre Dumas, who lived from 1802 to 1870, stands alongside Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac as one of the most extravagantly fertile narrative producers of all time. The three of them make of the first half of the French nineteenth century an extraordinary moment for fabulation. It is of course easier to grant the classic status of Balzac, who has endured and prevailed despite the distaste of classically minded critics for his often inflated prose. And if Victor Hugo has fallen out of fashion, Les Misérables finds continuing reincarnations (his other novels are very much worth reading too, especially his last, Ninety-Three, on the French Revolution).

Dumas is a somewhat different case. Even more than Balzac, he stands as an example of what the midcentury arbiter of literary taste Sainte-Beuve called “industrial literature”: cliff-hanger novels produced for serialization in the daily newspapers, work paid by the line and thus favoring great length (Dumas’s complete works run to over 100,000 pages). Dumas notoriously created a writing “factory,” parceling out parts of the production process to collaborators. In the case of The Count of Monte Cristo, it was especially Auguste Maquet, his long-suffering assistant, who did the plot outlines and researched locales and details of dress and manner. Dumas, though, seems to have done the writing himself. Maquet yearned for recognition by posterity, but it is Dumas alone who was solemnly entombed in the Panthéon, in 2002.

“Prodigious” is the word that best seems to describe Dumas’s output, whether in his novels or in the dramas that had an important part in the evolution of French theater. And the term applies as well to the man, who conceived himself in colossal proportions befitting work—and an epoch—in which melodrama was the mode of the day. His first great successes came in the theater, where from 1829 onward his plays offered a kind of upscale melodrama on historical subjects: Henri III et sa cour, La Tour de Nesle, Kean, ou désordre et génie, but also the somber “problem play” Antony, about a Byronic hero who kills his mistress, claiming that he is saving her honor—a work that foreshadowed the novels of his son.

He then turned to more lucrative historical fiction. Intent upon making writing a respected, well-paid career, he became, along with Balzac, Hugo, and George Sand, one of the founders of the Société des Gens de Lettres, which advocated copyright protection. He made a fortune from literature, yet his life came to resemble fiction: he built himself a castle, a Gothic and Renaissance confection he called Monte Cristo, and founded the Théâtre Historique, which was to stage mainly his own plays; he spent prodigiously, went bankrupt, and fled to Belgium to elude his creditors. The castle was sold to an American dentist for a fraction of its cost. He later joined Garibaldi in the cause of Italian independence. He lived to see the French humiliation in the Franco-Prussian War before dying in December 1870. From one of his early liaisons was born Alexandre Dumas fils, author of Le Demi-monde and La Dame aux camélias, the source of Verdi’s La Traviata.

In view of the fame of his illegitimate son, it is curious that the first pages of Dumas’s Memoirs (which run to some thousand pages) take great pains to establish not only that he was the legitimate son of Thomas-Alexandre Dumas-Davy de la Pailleterie and his wife, Louise-Elisabeth Labouret, daughter of an innkeeper in Villers-Cotterêts in Picardy, but also that his father was himself the legitimate child of Alexandre-Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie and Marie-Cessette Dumas. She was a black slave in Saint-Domingue—now Haiti—where the writer’s grandfather Alexandre-Antoine, of provincial nobility, had gone to seek his fortune on the sugar plantations; it is very unlikely that she and Antoine were ever married.

Their son Thomas-Alexandre—the subject of Tom Reiss’s Black Count, which has just won the Pulitzer Prize for biography—would take her surname as his own, and call himself Alex Dumas. And his father, though he seems to have sold other of his half-black children into slavery, would bring this son, aged fourteen, back to France in 1776. Then, at a moment when France was caught up in revolution, Alex Dumas would make his way as a soldier, rising from the lowest ranks in the Queen’s Dragoons to general in a matter of some twenty months. Although he died when Alexandre was only four, Alex Dumas still dominates the first 150 pages of his son’s memoirs, a loved and admired phantom.

Tom Reiss in The Black Count has given a clear account of the origins of the Dumas dynasty, including detailed work on the French sugar empire in Saint-Domingue—the most lucrative of European colonies in the Caribbean. Reiss traces complex patterns of racial mixture on the island—the separate castes formed by slaves, free blacks, mulattos, and whites—that would be made even more volatile with the coming of the French Revolution and the abolition of slavery by act of the Convention in 1794. It was short-lived abolition, since Napoleon (perhaps under the influence of his wife Josephine, who came from Martinique and had commercial interests there) reinstituted slavery in 1802. Only after the Revolution of 1848 did France finally declare that no one on French soil could be a slave (a law that harked back to a royal edict from 1315 that said the same thing but could not survive the era of colonization).

Before emancipation, the condition of blacks in France was uncertain and shifting, a tangled story that illustrates Tocqueville’s judgment that the Old Regime was too complex for its authoritarianism, and too authoritarian for its complexities. Alex Dumas, as the recognized son of a marquis, however feckless (following the death of Marie-Cessette, he married his housekeeper), could slip through the nets of racial classification. Yet he could not buy an officer’s commission. In 1786 he enlisted as a common solider in the Dragoons as “Dumas, Alexandre”—the first official record of that famous name. He thus spared his father the embarrassment of having an aristocrat son in the lowest military rank; and by this act of self-naming after his black mother he founded the famous dynasty. In 1792, by then a colonel, he married the daughter of the innkeeper with whom he was billeted in Villers-Cotterêts.

Reiss, whose research seems to have involved cracking a safe with the cooperation of the deputy mayor of Villers- Cotterêts to get at Dumas family documents, is so taken with the background he painstakingly assembles that the reader tends to get a bit lost in the welter of detail. French efforts to end the slave trade (which had become enormously profitable) and to use court proceedings and, later, legislation to emancipate slaves are historical topics deserving detailed study. Reiss has some trouble splicing them into his biography of Alex Dumas.

When he gets to the events of his central story, things become plain enough. We are in the swashbuckling world that Alex’s son would draw on for his fiction. Revolutionary France would soon be at war with most of Europe, and there was no quicker form of advancement than the military. Alex Dumas was tall—over six feet—and strong, with a physique everyone described as beautiful. With his dragoon’s saber, he could cut down the enemy with remarkable efficiency. What mattered most of all in those years when the Republic was in constant danger, and the Committee of Public Safety was taking on ever greater power, was success against the enemy. The unsuccessful commanding officer risked being declared a traitor and losing his head on the guillotine.

By 1793, Dumas had become a brigadier general in the Army of the North. He was then promoted to general of division—in charge of 10,000 men—and posted to the western Pyrenees. Later he was commander-in-chief of the Army of the Alps, and made a heroic nighttime dash up the mountains to capture the enemy fortress on Mont Cenis. In Italy, where he encountered the twenty-six-year-old general Napoleon Bonaparte, Dumas was to be lauded as “Horatius at the Bridge” for his single-handed heroics at Clausen, in the Tyrol. The Austrians named him der schwarze Teufel, the black devil.

Dumas was proud and outspoken, claiming to owe allegiance to the Republic but to no other commander. He was soon in conflict with Bonaparte, and chafed under his command when he was ordered to join the Egyptian campaign as chief of cavalry. After Admiral Nelson surprised and burned the French fleet in Aboukir Bay, Napoleon made his way back to France on his own, and Dumas, in poor health, decided to do the same, embarking with eleven Arabian horses and four thousand pounds of coffee on a ship called the Belle Maltaise, which turned out to be seriously unseaworthy. Storms and widening leaks in the hull forced them to short-circuit the voyage—and to throw all the coffee and most of the horses overboard—and to make port in Taranto, on the heel of Italy.

There Dumas fell foul of the wildly unstable politics of the Kingdom of Naples, which had fallen from French hands shortly before his arrival. He spent twenty months in a dungeon on no apparent charge and with no apparent end to his imprisonment. His demands to meet with the governor of the prison were refused; he believed the doctor sent by the governor to look after his intestinal pains was attempting to poison him. His life was saved, perhaps, by a group of local Friends of the French, who smuggled in chocolate, medicinal herbs, and a copy of Dr. Tissot’s medical self-help treatise.

The prison agony is recounted in his son’s memoirs, but more immediately in a report prepared by Alex himself for the French government, a document of gloom and conspiracy that Reiss found in that cracked safe in Villers-Cotterêts. We are close to the narrative of Dantès in the Château d’If in The Count of Monte Cristo. General Dumas would eventually be freed, to return to his wife and children in Villers-Cotterêts, but in a changed world—Napoleon was now in power, and racial discriminations were newly popular. A third child, his first son, was born in 1802, and baptized Alexandre. But Dumas’s health and spirits never entirely recovered from the months in prison. He died impoverished—Napoleon denied him a military pension—in 1806.

His twenty months in prison become Edmond Dantès’s fourteen years in his son’s novel. The original plot of The Count of Monte Cristo came from a story Alexandre Dumas found in a great source text, the Mémoires historiques tirés des archives de la police de Paris compiled by one Jacques Peuchet and published in six volumes in 1838. That, along with an Italian travelogue he’d been working on, provided almost all the elements he needed, though it was Maquet who rearranged the order of events, insisting that the betrayal and incarceration of Dantès had to stand at the outset of the novel, not as a flashback. Dumas saw the wisdom of this. And doubtless, as Reiss contends, his account of life in prison owed much to his father’s experience.

The nightmare of imprisonment without trial, without explanation, without apparent reason was an obsession of the age. In the Romantic imagination, the prison is everywhere. It represents one of the ultimate, extreme, hyperbolic human agonies that so appealed to an age that created melodrama. To be unable to know why you are incarcerated, to be kept in solitary confinement and on the verge of madness, to fear that your meals are poisoned, finally to lose your very name and identity—Dantès after a time is merely “prisoner number 34”—perfectly represents the monsters bred in the sleep of reason.

In the stage melodramas that appealed to the popular imagination following the Revolution, prisons and fortresses are everywhere. One of the repeated plot structures is the attempted escape—foiled, of course, by betrayal and villainy, though in the ultimately optimistic universe of melodrama the denouement will bring freedom or, even better, the destruction of the prison itself. The play often recognized as the first melodrama, Les Victimes cloîtrées (1791, by Boutet de Monvel), ends with the liberation of the hero and heroine from the underground dungeons of a monastery and a nunnery, represented side-by-side in an innovative stage set. The supreme master melodramatist, Guilbert de Pixérécourt, used fortresses and prisons over and over, and his late masterpiece, Latude, or Thirty-Five Years of Captivity, spectacularly stages the escape from the Bastille of Masers Latude, who indeed was imprisoned for thirty-five years because he had the audacity to write Marie Antoinette a mad love letter.

In fact, Bastilles of all sorts were part of the landscape of Old Regime Europe, places where you could be imprisoned by lettre de cachet or other arbitrary means, and with the struggle against revolutionary France the use of prisons for political purposes only increased, and then the Revolution itself made its own use of prisons. The Holy Alliance of nations against Napoleon, which was dedicated to stamping out the revolutionary spirit everywhere, famously locked up its prisoners in the Moravian fortress of Spielberg. The firsthand account by the carbonaro Silvio Pellico, Le mie prigioni (My Prisons), published in 1833, recounting his arrests and imprisonments from 1820 onward, became a source text for, among others, Stendhal.

The citadel of Parma in which Fabrizio del Dongo is twice imprisoned in The Charterhouse of Parma may be the most memorable of all the prisons evoked by the novelistic imagination since it has all the potentialities of confinement. When Stendhal sends Fabrizio to prison in chapter 16 he warns us that when we come back to him we may find him trans- formed. Stendhal’s hero discovers a “sublime spectacle” in the view northward to the Alps from the window of his prison—before the governor has that window covered by a shutter. He discovers, too, that he loves the governor’s daughter, Clelia Conti, and when the shutter makes communication with her ever more difficult, they move through a kind of reinvention of language from the ground up, Fabrizio tracing letters on his hand with charcoal dipped in wine, then Clelia creating a “magnificent” alphabet on paper cards.

These primitive means of communication permit the reinvention of a love free from the corruption of the court of Parma. It’s the imminent threat of poison upon his second incarceration, supposed to be a mere formality while the case against him is dismissed on appeal—but he has insulted the governor by his prior escape, so vengeance is in the works—that provokes Clelia finally to cast off all restraint and charge up the stairs to Fabrizio’s prison, to dash the poisoned plate from his hands, and to fall into his embrace.

Stendhal’s prison is richly ambiguous: the place of confinement can bring inner liberation as well as menace. Dumas’s Château d’If is more directly in the melodramatic mode—the experience of incarceration as pure nightmare, the erasure of self in radical unfreedom. Early in his time in the dungeon, Dantès has this dialogue with the jailer (Dumas famously filled pages with dialogue):

“I want to speak to the Governor.”

“Pah!” the jailer said impatiently. “I’ve already told you that’s impossible.”

“Why is it impossible?”

“Because, under the prison regulations, a prisoner is not allowed to make that request.”

“And what is allowed here?” Dantès asked.

“Better food, if you pay; walks; and sometimes books.”

“I have no need of books, I have no desire to walk and my food suits me well; so there is only one thing I want, which is to see the Governor.”

“If you get on my nerves by repeating the same thing over and over,” said the jailer, “I shall stop bringing you any food at all.”

“Well, then,” said Dantès, “if you do not bring me anything to eat, I shall starve.” The tone of Dantès’ voice as he said this showed the jailer that his prisoner would be happy to die; and, as every prisoner, when all is said and done, represents roughly ten sous a day for his jailer, the man considered the loss that he would suffer from Dantès’ death and continued in milder vein:

“Listen, what you want is impossible, so don’t ask for it again: it is unheard of for the governor to come into a cell at a prisoner’s request. But behave well and you will be allowed to exercise; and one day, while you are in the exercise yard, the governor may go by. Then you can talk to him. It is his business whether he wishes to reply.”

“But how long,” Dantès asked, “am I likely to wait before this occurs?”

“Who knows? A month, three months, six…perhaps a year.”*

This might seem to anticipate Kafka in the utter frustration of bureaucratic circularity, in the impossibility of appeal to a higher authority. What distinguishes it from The Trial or In the Penal Colony is the absence of Kafka’s impassive restraint, his management of a language of bureaucratic routine indifference, to chilling ends. That is not at all the tone of Dumas. In the melodramatic mode, everything must be stated, overstated, given a clear articulation. The naming of names is always a high moment in melodrama—and later in this novel, as Dantès under various disguises takes systematic revenge on those who put him in the Château d’If, the moment that reveals his true identity is fatal to the victim and triumphant for the hero.

Dantès in prison is not saved by “the Friends of the French” in the manner of the author’s father at Taranto, but rather by prisoner number 27, the abbé Faria, who was incarcerated three years before Dantès’s arrival, and has spent his time improving his knowledge—and digging a tunnel, which was supposed to penetrate the outside wall but through a miscalculation ends in Dantès’s cell instead. Faria not only saves Dantès from despair and suicide, he instructs him, and promises him buried treasure—on the isle of Monte Cristo—if and when he is liberated.

The jailers call him the mad abbé; his offers of riches if allowed to escape are put down as the delusions that prison typically creates. For there is here, as in Stendhal and Hugo for instance, a dialectic of jailer and prisoner that touches on the depths of human humiliation—the kind of exchange still with us, in our reinvention of the Chateau d’If in our “super maximum security” prisons. As Dumas writes, “despotic governments have always been loath to exhibit the effects of prison and torture in broad daylight.”

Dantès’s escape from the island fortress comes only through Faria’s death: he can switch the abbé’s corpse to his own bed and sew himself into the body bag. He sequesters a knife inside the bag, ready to rip his way out and dig himself from the grave. But it’s not the earth that awaits him but, in the most dramatic moment of the novel, burial by sea: tossed from the parapet into the waves with a thirty-pound cannonball tied to his feet. Chapter 20 ends: “The sea is the graveyard of the Château d’If.” Yet Dantès survives, to be picked up by a boat of smugglers, to find the uninhabited isle of Monte Cristo (which had struck Dumas’s imagination on a tour of Italy years before), and to become the very spirit of vengeance. After rewarding his early benefactor, Morrel:

“And now,” said the stranger, “farewell, goodness, humanity, gratitude…Farewell all those feelings that nourish and illuminate the heart! I have taken the place of Providence to reward the good; now let the avenging God make way for me to punish the wrongdoer!”

If only the real world followed the dreamwork logic of melodrama. Eventually, Dantès (now the Count of Monte Cristo, ennobled—as so many were coming to be—by wealth) decides that vengeance belongs to the divinity, not to man, and retires from the retribution business.
-------------------------------------------------​

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo is a 2012 biography of General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas written by Tom Reiss. The book presents the life and career of Dumas as a soldier and officer during the French Revolution, as well as his military service in Italy during the French Revolutionary Wars and later in Egypt under Napoleon. Reiss offers insight into slavery and the life of a man of mixed race during the French Colonial Empire. He also reveals how Dumas's son – author Alexandre Dumas – viewed his father, who served as the inspiration for some of his novels, including The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers.

The Black Count presents the life of the French General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, who served as the inspiration for the book The Count of Monte Cristo written by his son Alexandre Dumas. Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, also known as Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie, was born in Jérémie, Saint-Domingue (Haiti) in 1762, the son of the Marquis Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie and Marie-Cessette Dumas, his Haitian slave. In addition to being the father of French novelist Alexandre Dumas, he was also the grandfather of playwright Alexandre Dumas, known for La Dame aux Camélias, the source for Giuseppe Verdi's La traviata.

Dumas was born the son of a renegade French nobleman and his black slave in 1762 in the French sugar colony of Saint Domingue (the future Haiti); at the time of his birth, his father was living on the run from the royal authorities and from the boy's uncle, a rich planter who shipped sugar and slaves out of a Haitian area called "Monte Cristo". When Dumas was 14, his father sold him and his three siblings into slavery in Port-au-Prince, in order to raise funds to return to France and reclaim his inheritance and estate. Some months later, the father repurchased his son and had him sent to France, leaving the siblings in Haiti, where they remained slaves.

As a teenager in Paris, Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie was recognized as a member of the French aristocracy. He attended school and received an education in literature, sword fighting, military arts, and the fundamentals of 18th-century French aristocracy. When he was 24 he lost his income because of his father's lavishing funds on a new wife. He enlisted in the French military as a dragoon, taking his mother's surname Dumas and shortening his forename to Alex, and rose quickly in the ranks. During the French Revolution, he led a group of mixed-race swordsmen called the "Free Legion of Americans," nicknamed the "Black Legion," and he received citations from the new French Republic for various daring, risky operations.

As he was given command of more troops, Dumas's military actions and victories included opening the glacier passes of the high Alps, which provided access for the military in their ongoing battle with the Austrian Empire. When he was 32, he was promoted to the rank of General-in-Chief of the French Army of the Alps, responsible for commanding 53,000 troops.[1] Dumas is the highest-ranking person of color to have served in a continental European army, and the first to become divisional general and General-in-Chief of the French army. He held the distinction of being the highest-ranking black commander ever in any white military until 1989, when American Colin Powell became a four-star general, the closest United States equivalent of Général d'Armée, Dumas's highest rank. In 1798 General Dumas went to Egypt as the Cavalry Commander of the French Expeditionary Army of the Orient; on the march from Alexandria to Cairo, Dumas publicly confronted Napoleon about the motives of the expedition. Dumas departed for France shortly thereafter but was caught in a sinking vessel in the Mediterranean and forced to put ashore in hostile territory, where he was taken hostage and kept in a dungeon for over two years without clearly understanding the motives or identity of his captors.

Released from the dungeon in 1802, he returned to France. Napoleon had seized power and passed the Law of 20 May 1802 – which effectively restored slavery, which had been abolished in 1794 in all the French colonies following the Revolution. And within France, Napoleon's series of harsh racial laws meant black and mixed-race officers were effectively demoted to chain-gang labor, the integrated schools of Paris were closed, and even General Dumas's marriage to a white Frenchwoman was made illegal. General Dumas raised his son, the future novelist Alexandre Dumas, in a house that was officially too close to Paris for a black-skinned person to live in; the general was forced to write a humiliating letter asking for a dispensation of this housing law. Dumas never received another military command, despite repeated requests for one. The debilitation from his previous two-year dungeon imprisonment in Italy led to his early death in 1806, at the age of 43.

In preparation for the writing and publication of The Black Count, Reiss undertook a comprehensive study of colonial Haiti, Revolutionary France, medieval Egypt, and political and social unrest in Italy. He also visited the dungeon in Taranto, where Dumas was held from 1799 through 1801 by allies of King Ferdinand IV of Naples during his war with France. Reiss spent two years in search of a publicly commissioned statue of Dumas that was erected in 1913 at the Place Malesherbes (now known as the Place du Général-Catroux) in Paris. While the statue had been displayed for over 30 years, alongside statues of his son and grandson, research revealed that it was melted down by German military forces during World War II.

Reiss' additional research included visiting the Musée Alexandre Dumas in Villers-Cotterêts, France, which is devoted to the archives and conservation of the works of Dumas's son, the novelist. Reiss learned of the possible existence of a long-forgotten cache of materials and documents, but the librarian unexpectedly died without recording the combination to the safe. Reiss persuaded a town official to "blow open" the safe, revealing a collection of records that proved valuable to presenting the life and work of Dumas.

On September 15, 2012, just prior to publication, Reiss was interviewed by NPR staff member Scott Simon. Simon asked Reiss why, prior to this biography, there had been little mention of Dumas's various heroic military exploits both during the French Revolution and afterwards throughout western Europe. Reiss responded with a brief overview of Napoleon's relationship with Dumas, who came to prominence during a time in history when his race was considered by the French as exotic and desirable. Dumas was seen as a physically contrasting presence to Napoleon, which seemingly threatened the leader. Reiss remarked that Napoleon took umbrage to Dumas, who stood over six feet tall and was "incredibly dashing and physically brilliant". Napoleon also took offense when Dumas publicly opposed his military expedition during a 1798 failed French attempt to conquer Egypt and the Levant, in which Dumas commanded the French cavalry forces. Napoleon never forgave him for his public defiance, and punished him afterwards.

This retaliation played out as follows: In spring 1799, returning to France from Egypt, Dumas was on a sinking ship forced to make landfall in southern Italy. He was captured by reactionary allies of King Ferdinand IV of Naples, then at war with France, and thrown into a Taranto dungeon in hopes of a ransom from Napoleon in exchange for his release. Napoleon instead used Dumas's capture as an opportunity to solidify his dictatorship throughout France. When Dumas was released after two years, Napoleon had risen to power and had summarily reinstated slavery and eliminated civil rights protection – resulting in a whitewashing of Dumas's military heroics during the Revolution. Physically incapacitated from the captivity, Dumas died in early 1806. Although his son was less than four years old at the time, he retained memories of his father, later honoring his legacy through his literary works The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers.

On September 19, 2012, NPR's Drew Toal reviewed the book, reiterating Simon's astonishment at the impact that Dumas made in life and literature, and calling the book and life of Dumas "fascinating".[8] He compared the historical influence of Dumas with his offspring, stating he was "larger-than-life" and that "the sword was mightier than the pen" for this father of a famous novelist. While acknowledging the military impact that Dumas made in France, along with the inspiration his life provided as a backdrop in literature throughout history, Toal was surprised at the level of enthusiasm the author expressed about his subject. "I like to think of him as history's ultimate underdog," Reiss had explained in his earlier NPR interview. "He's a black man, born into slavery, and then he rises higher than any black man rose in a white society before our own time. He became a four-star general and challenges Napoleon, and he did it all 200 years ago, at the height of slavery." In the end, Toal summed up his review, stating, "Despite Reiss' sometimes overblown regard, it's difficult to argue with him. That a former slave could rise on his merits so far, so fast some seven decades before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation is a truly amazing story, one that needs no literary embellishment."

On September 28, 2012, Nigel Jones in the UK's The Guardian characterized Reiss, the author of "enthralling biographies", as "more a literary gumshoe detective than a conventional biographer". He noted that at a small municipal library in rural France, Reiss uncovered a trove of documents and letters which shed light on Dumas's life. Jones concluded his review by stating that, like Dumas's son, "Reiss has written a swashbuckling tale of his own."

In The Boston Globe, Madison Smartt Bell summarized the book. He lauded Reiss, stating that he revealed details about Dumas and about 18th-century French racial policies which had previously been widely unknown. He noted the comprehensiveness of the book, which effectively uses the revolutions in France and Haiti, along with the rise of Napoleon, as a backdrop to the biography. Bell commended Reiss' research and writing, which was carried out "with remarkable verve".

The Christian Science Monitor published a review by David Holahan on November 21, 2012, in which he spoke of the comprehensive coverage offered in the book. Holahan called The Black Count a "remarkable and almost compulsively researched account" and stated "the author spent a decade on the case, and it shows". The Daily Mail's Christopher Hudson called Dumas "the Daddy of All Action Heroes" and said that The Black Count is "brilliantly researched". Hudson wrote that "Reiss spent long years researching this book, trawling the Caribbean, Europe and the Middle East. It was worth the trouble."

On April 15, 2013, The Black Count was honored with the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography. Jury members included Elmaz Abinader, professor of English at Mills College in Oakland, California; Michael Kazin, professor of history at Georgetown University; and Alan Brinkley, Allan Nevins Professor of History at Columbia University, where he also served as University Provost from 2003 to 2009. In a joint statement following their review and pronouncement of The Black Count as the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner, the jury stated that the real-life inspiration for the Count of Monte Cristo, presented "a compelling story of a forgotten swashbuckling hero". Following the announcement of the Pulitzer Prize winners, Reiss reflected on the honor, stating, "For me the great thrill of this book is that I pulled somebody out of the pages of fiction, who was forgotten about in fact, and showed his exploits to be a true story. It's swashbuckling, but for a purpose. He was the highest-ranking black leader in a white society until modern times and really a very serious revolutionary."
  meadcl | Jul 20, 2014 |
Although many of you have probably read or watched The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, few people know that many of the adventures in these classics were inspired by the author’s father, also named Alex Dumas. From exciting sword fights to wrongful imprisonment, this true story has it all. Why did Alex Dumas have so many exciting adventures? In the name of “liberty, fraternity, and equality” of course! That’s right… Alex Dumas was a hero of the French Revolution, one who embodied the best qualities of that revolution. Not only did he take advantage of the unparalleled racial equality it caused, his stunning rise through the military never lead him to stop treating all others with the respect and human dignity he believed they deserved.


This was an amazing story which reminded me why I love narrative non-fiction. I always enjoy a good adventure story, but the fact that these adventures actually happened adds another layer of awesome to the reading experience. However, the author didn’t just happen to have a good story to work with; he did a great job with the writing. The writing style was typical of scholarly popular biographies, clearly well-researched and informative without the language becoming too scholarly for a fun read. It was sometimes funny and even included the occasional pop culture reference. This writing style, in addition to the engrossing story, made The Black Count a very accessible read.

Something that’s very important to a good biography is the use of primary sources and the author does a great job with those as well. Snippets of letters by and about Dumas are seamlessly worked into the story told by the author. The sources added a lot to the narrative, including support for the author’s inferences about Dumas’ feelings and character. By the end of the book, I felt like we’d really gotten to know him. In addition to the personal anecdotes about Dumas, the author introduces broader social issues of the time and details of life during that time period. This context, as well as Dumas’ interaction with famous historical figures such as Napoleon and Robespierre, really helped me understand how he fit into his time period. This mix of personal anecdotes and exciting adventures with historical details exemplifies what I look for in narrative non-fiction. If you also love narrative non-fiction or swash-buckling adventure stories, you should definitely check this out.

This review first published on Doing Dewey. ( )
1 vote DoingDewey | Jun 29, 2014 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Early reviewer copy. I don't read much history, but the narrative of his life was interesting enough to keep me entertained the whole way through. Worth the read :) ( )
  noah.richards | Jun 20, 2014 |
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It was nearly midnight on the night of February 26, 1806, and Alexandre Dumas, the future author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, was asleep at his uncle's house. He was not yet four years old.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 030738246X, Hardcover)

Amazon Best Books of the Month, September 2012: Generations have been enthralled by Alexandre Dumas' characters, especially the wronged hero in The Count of Monte Cristo and the daring swordsmen in The Three Musketeers. Yet few realize that these memorable characters were inspired by Dumas' father, General Alex Dumas, the son of a French count and a black Haitian slave. Tom Reiss brings the elder Dumas alive with previously unpublished correspondence and meticulous research, providing the context necessary to understand how exceptional his life as a mulatto general in a slave-owning empire truly was. From single-handedly holding a bridge in the Alps against 20 enemies to spending years held captive in a fortress, Alex Dumas is a fascinating character that not even his son's vivid imagination could have dreamed up. --Malissa Kent

An Essay by Author Tom Reiss

Tom Reiss

I've always loved exploring history. It's like an uncharted hemisphere, and when you look at it closely, it has a tendency to change everything about your own time. I'm also drawn to outsiders, people who have swum against the tide. I often feel like a kind of detective hired to go find people who have been lost to history, and discover why they were lost. Whodunnit?

In this case, I found solid evidence that, of all people, Napoleon did it: he buried the memory of this great man – Gen. Alexandre Dumas, the son of a black slave who led more than 50,000 men at the height of the French Revolution and then stood up to the megalomaniacal Corsican in the deserts of Egypt. (The "famous" Alexandre Dumas is the general's son – the author of The Three Musketeers.) Letters and eyewitness accounts show that Napoleon came to hate Dumas not only for his stubborn defense of principle but for his swagger and stature – over six feet tall and handsome as a matinee idol – and for the fact that he was a black man idolized by the white French army. (I found that Napoleon's destruction of Dumas coincided with his destruction of one of the greatest accomplishments of the French Revolution – racial equality – a legacy he also did his best to bury.)

I first came across Gen. Dumas's life in the memoir of his son Alexandre, the novelist. And what a life! Alex Dumas, as he preferred to be known, was born in Saint Domingue, later Haiti, the son of a black slave and a good-for-nothing French aristocrat who came to the islands to make a quick killing and instead barely survived. In fact, to get back to France in order to claim an inheritance, he actually "pawned" his black son into slavery, but then he bought him out, brought him to Paris, and enrolled him in the royal fencing academy, and then the story begins to get interesting.

What really stuck with me from reading the memoir was the love that shows through from the son, the writer, for his father, the soldier. I could never forget the novelist describing the day his father died. His mother met him on the stairs in their house, lugging his father's gun over his shoulders, and asked him what he was doing. Little Alexandre replied: "I'm going to heaven to kill God – for killing daddy." When he grew up, he took a greater sort of revenge, infusing his father's life and spirit into fictional characters like Edmond Dantes and D'Artagnan, with shades of Porthos, too. But the image of the angry child stuck with me and drove me onward to discover every scrap of evidence I could about his forgotten father.

And recovering the life of the real man behind these stories was the ultimate historical prospecting journey for me: I learned about Maltese knights and Mameluke warriors, the tricks of 18th-century spycraft and glacier warfare, torchlight duels in the trenches and portable guillotines on the front; I got to know about how Commedia del Arte influenced Voodoo and how a Jacobin sultan influenced the Star-Spangled Banner, about chocolate cures for poisoning and the still brisk trade in Napoleonic hair clippings. I discovered the amazing forgotten civil rights movement of the 18th century – and its unraveling – though the most amazing thing about this story of a black man in a white world was how little race stood in his way: how Alex Dumas's future father-in-law never once questioned his daughter marrying a man of color but only asked that he get promoted to sergeant first (later he lovingly referred to his son-in-law simply as "the General").

Finally, the memoir set me not only on a historical adventure but on an adventure in the present day that was straight out of a Dumas novel. I began by visiting the gray town in northeast France where the general died – where I found a dead museum secretary, a locked safe, and a host of unlikely, inspiring characters to make my journey a far from lonely one.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:28:14 -0400)

In this extraordinary biography, Tom Reiss traces the almost unbelievable life of the man who inspired not only Monte Cristo, but all three of the Musketeers: the novelist's own father.

(summary from another edition)

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