The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo

by Tom Reiss

Hardcover, 2012

Call number

944.04 REI

Collection

Publication

Crown (2012), Edition: First Edition, 432 pages

Description

Explores the life and career of Thomas Alexandre Dumas, a man almost unknown today, but whose swashbuckling exploits appear in The three musketeers and whose trials and triumphs inspired The count of Monte Cristo.

User reviews

LibraryThing member michigantrumpet
Few readers astounded by Alexandre Dumas' swashbuckling tales of derring do in The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers realize they have a basis in a true French hero - Dumas' father. The story of Thomas-Alexandre Dumas - a larger than life character befitting any novel - is well worth resurrecting from obscurity. He was a black man who rose to Commander-in-Chief (equivalent of a four star general), "the highest rank for a man of color in an all-white army before Colin Powell."

Thomas-Alexandre Dumas was born on a Haitian sugar plantation to a French nobleman father and slave mother. When the father returned to France, he took his then freed son along and gave him a gentleman's education. When Thomas Alexandre decided to join the military at the very lowest level, the father was incensed that his name would be attached to a private. The resulting, never-repaired rupture led Thomas Alexandre to adopt his slave mother's name, 'Dumas'.

Surviving the French Revolution, Dumas rose quickly through the ranks, gaining a reputation for valor, physical strength, moral conviction, and courageous leadership. He was revered and respected by those men serving under him. By 1796, he formed an alliance with Napoleon Bonaparte which would lead to Dumas' greatest fame and lowest despair. They fought together through the Italian and Egyptian campaigns. His great height (over 6 foot tall) and dark good looks led the Egyptians to believe he was the leader, not Napoleon. This assuredly did not sit well with Napoleon.

Dumas, having the "unique perspective of being from the highest and lowest ranks of society at the same time", was firmly committed to The Republic's principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. He soon came to feel Napoleon was more interested in self-aggrandizement than concern for his own soldiers. After a confrontation, Dumas was ordered back to France. On the way, the poorly equipped ship ran aground. Dumas was thrown into an Italian dungeon as a prisoner of war. There he languished for two years. Napoleon refused to have his name spoken in his presence. Dumas' wife eventually won his release. He returned to France a broken man.

Although novelist Alexandre Dumas was just a young boy when his father died, he was raised on stories of his meteoric rise, enormous charisma and military prowess. These form the basis of his greatest novels. To those who knew General Dumas, the fictional characters were thinly veiled depictions of the great man. Nevertheless, the victors write the history and Napoleon effectively erased his quarrelsome General from our collective consciousness.

Author Thomas Reiss goes far in repairing and resurrecting the Black Count's reputation. This is a fast moving book that kept me drawn in to the finish. One might complain that Reiss slips occasionally into hagiography, and also inserts himself too much into this otherwise engaging story. The book opens with Reiss battling with French bureaucracy and dynamiting into a sealed safe in an attempt to access some Dumas family documents and memorabilia. Overall, though, I was quite satisfied. Anyone who is a big fan of the younger Dumas' novels, or those lovers of military history will be particularly drawn to this book.
… (more)
LibraryThing member atimco
Tom Reiss, a well-known biographer, here examines the life of a man he calls "one of history's forgotten heroes": General Alexandre Dumas, father of the famous novelist. The illegitimate son of a renegade French nobleman and a Haitian slave, Alexandre Dumas went from slavery (his father sold him to pay for passage back to France) to commander of more than 50,000 men in the French Army. He played an important role in the wars following the French Revolution and Napoleon's rise to power, and yet he remains a little-known figure, probably rescued from complete obscurity by the fame of his son, author of such novels as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers.

Alex Dumas was, by all accounts, almost superhumanly strong, extremely handsome, and highly intelligent. A superb fighter, Dumas was renowned for his physical prowess and courage in the face of danger. Not only that, but he seems to have been a man of strong moral fiber as well. I loved reading his letters to his wife Marie-Louise, written from various battlefields around the world. He never flagged in his faithfulness to her and his love for their children (though a soldier's life certainly offered many opportunities for less than exemplary behavior).

Dumas also demonstrated unfailing commitment to his ideals. One example of this is when he was in Egypt. He came across a sizeable treasure abandoned by one of the Marmeluke warriors, but instead of keeping it for himself (as he could have easily done), he turned it over to the French government. He was a true idealist who earnestly believed in and fought for the best values of the French Revolution. He would never betray the Republic... but, sadly, it would betray him.

To tell Dumas's story, quite a bit of history is required. Some readers may find it dry, but I enjoyed it all. Much time is devoted to examining the race relations of Dumas's period, which were complicated to say the least.

I enjoyed the way that Reiss weaves threads from the son's novels (especially The Count of Monte Cristo) with the real-life events. Dumas's long, unjust, and physically debilitating imprisonment by the Neapolitan government after he was shipwrecked leaving Egypt provided much of the basis for Edmund Dantés's adventures. d'Artagnan's famous day of duels was also inspired by General Dumas's own life.

One thing I didn't care for was Reiss's occasionally sarcastic, even mocking tone toward those who hold ideologies different from his own. To be sure, I agreed with most of the comments he made, but chronological snobbery and scholarly superciliousness are turn-offs no matter what the issue.

One of the most fascinating "big ideas" I took away from this book is that human society is not always moving forward to better thought, knowledge, and ethics. We aren't evolving morally. I think we assume that we've been progressing and becoming more and more enlightened (however one defines that) as the centuries roll on, but it simply isn't the case. Dumas's life bears this out. When he was young, people of color had remarkable freedoms in France (despite France's sugar empire in Haiti and other places where the most brutal form of race-based slavery was practiced). But Dumas, who was once the toast of French society and a highly respected general, lived to see almost all his freedoms and rights taken away by Napoleon's rule. It was heartbreaking to watch a man who had sacrificed so much for his country become a victim of the racism that gained so much ground there during his lifetime.

All in all, this was an excellent biography that I thoroughly enjoyed despite its rather unhappy ending. Alex Dumas emerges from these pages as not only a great general, but as a man whose moral integrity and courage command respect.
… (more)
LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
I'm sure a lot of people are going to think the same thing reading this biography: "How in the world did I not know about this man?" Everyone knows Alexandre Dumas, père--or at least knows his The Three Musketeers. I haven't read his books, but I've watched several adaptations and homages to them, everything from toons to allusions on Star Trek. I knew that this 19th century author was both French and black--yet nevertheless celebrated even in his lifetime. I knew of his son, who wrote the play that was the basis for Camille and Verdi's La Traviata. But I didn't know about his father Alex Dumas. General Alex Dumas. Son of a marquis and a slave, born in Haiti, who his own father pawned into slavery, then redeemed and brought to Paris. He enlisted as a common soldier and when the French Revolution briefly swept away race as a bar, he rose to the rank of what would be considered today a four star general--commanding at one point over 50,000 troops--and was a genuine hero.

That's not all to his story either. So many of the events in this biography sound like out and out adventure fiction. Yet Reiss obviously researched this meticulously--he doesn't just go by his son's memoir, but sought out confirmations and contradictions and complications in the story. There are plenty of quotes from letters of General Dumas that bring his personality to life. The book also deals with the backdrop of his life: the sugar plantations of Haiti and the creole culture, Paris of the ancien regime and the French Revolution and rise of Napoleon.

I'd been reading biographies and other books dealing with the American Revolution lately, and it struck me in those books how deeply the American and French revolutions were intertwined, so it was interesting seeing it from the other side. (The French helped us win our revolution, and it bankrupted them helping touch off their own; The Marquis de Lafayette fought in both; Thomas Jefferson, who wrote our Declaration of Independence, helped draft their Declaration of the Rights of Man.) Whenever I'd read of the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror, the dysfunction of its government and its totalitarian aspects were what was emphasized. Reiss highlights by the nature of this biography what was hopeful and inspiring in it. Reiss claims the revolutionary government was the "first in history to abolish slavery." (I'd dispute that; I've read of examples in antiquity--notably Cyrus of Persia and Ashoka of India banned slavery in their dominions.) Blacks not only rose high in the military of revolutionary France, they were part of the legislature and in that period made strides socially and politically: until Napoleon. The glimpses we get of him here are not pretty. Reiss refers to Napoleon's "maddeningly contradictory legacy" as both "dictator" and "liberator"--his reign marked the resumption of racial discrimination and even slavery--what then was done to Dumas' native Haiti was a tragedy.

So both as the biography of a neglected historical figure and a window into his times this succeeds wonderfully. A great read.
… (more)
LibraryThing member barlow304
Tom Reiss’s The Black Count is an extraordinary biography of an extraordinary man: father to the novelist Alexandre Dumas and grandfather to the renowned playwright of the same name. Alex Dumas, however, was born a slave in what is now Haiti, but rose to become a general in the army of revolutionary France. As the illegitimate but recognized son of a marquis in France, Alex Dumas entered pre-revolutionary Parisian society as one of the elite. Trained in fencing and riding, he cut a considerable figure, given his imposing physical stature. When the revolution came, he joined it whole-heartedly, rising in the ranks from private to general of a division.

Reiss uses Alex Dumas also to explore the racial politics of the revolution, which pursued surprisingly enlightened policies. The favor with which society welcomed blacks and mulattos, all popularly called “Americans”, the removal of racial laws, the spirit of the revolution itself all helped Alex Dumas make the most of his abilities, which were considerable. No wonder he was devoted to the Republic. But when Napoleon rose to power, he re-instituted many racial laws. The fact that this damaged Dumas, a prisoner of war at the time and a general Napoleon detested, was just gravy.

Along the way, Reiss shows how various incidences in Alex Dumas’s life play out in his son’s fiction, how Dumas’s heroic exploits and impressive physical traits translate into such familiar literary figures as the Count of Monte Crisco.
Highly recommended.
… (more)
LibraryThing member xymon81
What an interesting topic and one that I really was not familiar with. The French Revolution is such a complex and turbulent time and one that before this never really sat down to really understand. For being a multi layered novel it flows together so well. You have three things, the main character Alex Dumas, the back drop of the French revolution, and third are the ethical issues of slavery during the period. The author does such a great job of blending all three of these together and it keeps a steady flow without getting too bogged down. I have to say that this is one of the best novels nonfiction or fiction that I have read this year. A definite must read.… (more)
LibraryThing member ladypembroke
I'm giving the book 3 stars because a) it's a non-fiction novel and therefore not as compelling as fiction reading and b) there is a HUGE focus on the mechanics of war, which bores me no end. I find the story of Alex Dumas (the general, not the author) to be a fascinating one, and I think it's important that we not lose his history. Being black and in a position of great power in Revolutionary-era France is a major accomplishment, one that is sadly rolled back during the Napoleonic era. I hope more people learn of this brave, learned, incredibly important man, and this book is definitely a great start to honoring the hero he was. (In the midst of the Terror, he never succumbs to the mob mentality of the time, retaining his purely nationalistic views.) Of course, history is written by the winners, and it is clear that the author respects Dumas, so perhaps the view is not a completely unbiased one. Hard to tell when the source documents are exclusively French.… (more)
LibraryThing member lkernagh
So, it is not surprising that I was enticed to acquire this one, given my love for the author Dumas' story, The Count of Monte Cristo. Reiss delves deep into General Dumas life and his military career during both the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. In pulling together this historical biography, Reiss brings to light the shifting attitudes towards race and slavery of pre- and post-revolutionary France and its colonies as well as the conflicts slavery and plantation ownership - key to economic survival of France - were at odds with the revolutionary ideals of "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity" versus the economic interests of the colonial plantation owners and the resulting re-emergence of racist bigotry that allowed for the re-enslavement of its black population as well as the erasure of the memory of the valiant contributions they made to France - including those of the Black Count.

Reading this, it is easy to see how author Dumas senior felt such admiration for his father, who was a source of inspiration for some of his stories. On the downside, the book goes into a fair bit of detail about military strategies (not a favorite topic of mine). I was intrigued to learn of the conflicts between General Dumas and some senior military personnel, including Napoleon, where Dumas principals did not co-exist well with Napoleon's "empire building" vision.

Overall, an interesting glimpse into the Count/General Dumas and 18th-19th century French empire.
… (more)
LibraryThing member shadowofthewind
Tom Reiss is a huge fan of Alexandre Dumas. Reading through his attempted memoir, he finds that Dumas idolized his father and that many of his stories are based on his exploits. Going on an adventure of his own, he sets out to find Thomas-Alexandre Dumas Davy de la Pailletrie and reveals a long forgotten history of slavery, racism, adventure, and betrayal.

What’s really interesting about this biography is the history of slavery in French colonies, as well as racism in French society. In a 50 year period, the French provided far more liberty to those born in Saint Domingue (now modern day Haiti) and other colonies. From the 1750s Freedom Trials, ending Slavery in France and most of the colonies, to the French Revolution establishing equality for all men, to the slide back to the Ancien Regime under Napoleon. It’s these three milestones that Alexandre Dumas is tied up in, the changing times affecting his fate.

Reiss’ biography can be very dry in parts. In order to tell the story of Dumas, he must provide a re-telling of the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon. The role of Dumas is lost in the story at times as Reiss must build up context for his role. He becomes a soldier after his father runs up his debts, becoming destitute. He wins fame as France battles all of Europe during the French Revolution. As a result of the Terror, many generals lose their heads, promoting Dumas very quickly for his skill and ability, especially in the cavalry.

He would lead France to victory in the Alps, in Italy, in Austria, and in Egypt. His flag flies high until the rise of Napoleon. Demoted over time despite some of his greatest victories, he would attempt to return to France after Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition, only to be caught in the changing times of Europe. He would become a prisoner of war only to return to France to deal with racism at home. He would die destitute, planting only the seed of idolization to his young child, the author Alexander Dumas. Every novel by Dumas is a novel about his father, his spirit in every story. It is Reiss’s detective work that allows us to see who that spirit really was, long buried by history.
… (more)
LibraryThing member jcarpentercc
Working through this one a bit slowly, but it's good so far. An interesting history lesson - Alexandre Dumas, the French Revolution, sugar plantations, and more...now I definitely want to go back and read The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo to see what all Dumas drew from his father's life story!
LibraryThing member bjappleg8
I had a late life introduction to actually reading Alexandre Dumas' novels, though of course I was familiar with his stories from movies and TV, etc. This biography of his father, Alex Dumas, is worthy of one of his son's novels (as it should be -- it probably inspired a good deal of them!). Son of a French expatriate in Sainte-Domingue and a slave on his sugar plantation -- and the only one of their children that his father brought back to France with him -- he grew up to be a soldier and general whose military feats were legendary in the French Republican Army. The story of his military exploits and glory and his subsequent fall after the rise of Bonaparte is one I'm surprised no one had told before. There is a great deal of background on the French colonization of Sainte-Domingue (now Haiti) and the French Revolution. Some reviewers have criticized the depth of detail Reiss provides, but I found it very helpful.

This is not historical fiction, but for anyone interested in Dumas, or the French Revolution, this is well worth your time.
… (more)
LibraryThing member Osbaldistone
(This is a review of the Advanced Reader’s Edition)

The Black Count is a great, almost unbelievable story, presented with a comfortable prose style by Tom Reiss, who tapped sources locked away in a small museum to flesh out General Alexandre Dumas, who led major military efforts in the French Revolution as well as the early adventures of Napoleon.

Reiss makes this biography quite readable by opening most episodes with introductory and background information and closing the episodes with more historical background to set up the next chapter. This approach makes the story quite enjoyable, while providing a good overview of the French slave colony days, the French Revolution, and the rise of Napoleon.

The Black Count is highly recommended for anyone interested in this period in French history, as well as anyone who likes a good, true story. But don't be in a hurry to read about the father of Alexandre Dumas, the author of The Three Musketeers, because Reiss starts his story with the beginnings of French slave plantations in the days of the grandfather of Dumas the author.

The life of General Alex Dumas should have been made into a movie decades ago, and probably would have if not for The Count of Monte Cristo which used General Dumas as the model for its protagonist.

Os.
… (more)
LibraryThing member DoingDewey
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.
… (more)
LibraryThing member mabith
This is a biography of Alexandre Dumas' father, who inspired many characters and aspects of his son's fiction. He was the son of a French count and a black Haitian slave, who grew up in Haiti, was leased into slavery by his father (to help pay the count's passage back to France), and then led the life of a rich playboy when he arrived in France before joining the army and becoming a committed Republican fighter and one of Napoleon's generals.

Now, that's one hell of a hook. This biography is written exquisitely and I found myself applauding the author over what he chose to include and to point out, and the amount of historical background he included. There's enough background for a novice of the period to feel well-informed, but not so much to bore the knowledgeable, and every bit relates back to Dumas' life.

The book is full of extracts from Alexandre Dumas' memoir, letters written to and from the General and his close family and friends, and various military dispatches. I was honestly slightly shocked over just how many source documents were available. The book is exciting, joyous, and heart wrenching at times, with the flow and intensity of a novel.

The only momentary annoyance I felt was during some references to Napoleon's height. The annoyance coming from the fact that his height was actually slightly above average for the period. Granted perhaps all of her generals were exceptionally tall, but the author could have pointed out that Napoleon really wasn't short in the least. That's just me being nitpicky though.
… (more)
LibraryThing member Stbalbach
I was really looking forward to what seemed like a fun book, but it turned out to be heavy on the theme of Franco-Black race-relations in late 18th century France (a narrow but important subject to be sure) and light on personal action/adventure. The problem appears to be few sources for his life and many of those sources are suspect as the imaginations of his son the novelist. So Reiss goes off on many tangents. Still, it was a remarkable life, somewhat created by circumstance and with a banal anti-climatic ending. It's tempting to view father and son as a single life because then you have a young daring adventurer and the older man of letters and intellect and it feels complete. In any case the world now has the most complete biography of General Alexandre Dumas who deserves the monument.… (more)
LibraryThing member Y2Ash
I am not one to pick up a book solely because it has won a Pulitzer Prize. Sometimes I happen on such books by accident. With The Black Count, it was not until I heard the description that I thought: I must read this book!

In The Black Count, author Tom Reiss discusses the life of General Alexandre "Alex" Dumas, a mixed race military man who believed in France's Revolutionary cause for freedom. Little was known about him except for the fact that he was novelist Alexandre Dumas', the author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, father. The novelist was heavily influenced by his father's exploits and were incorporated into his two aforementioned works.

Reiss went on a tireless campaign to discover more about General Dumas and found out about his true patrimony. Dumas was the son of a white miserly nobleman named Alexandre Antoine Davy, the Marquis de la Pailleterie and an unknown black slave woman named Cessette. When Dumas went into the French army under a lowly rank, he changed his name to Alex Dumas, citing his parents as Cessette and Antoine Dumas.

General Dumas rose through the ranks, winning battle after battle. In the midst, he found time to marry Mary-Louise Labouret and had three children: Alexandrine-Aimée, Louise, and Alexandre. Louise had died at age 3 from causes unknown while her father was abroad. Dumas rose through it all until he found a formidable enemy in fellow General Napoleon Bonaparte, who was able to manipulate the French government until he got it back to the pre-reveloutionary ways, most importantly, before France abolished slavery.

Unfortunately, after General Dumas was wrongfully imprionsed and unsuccessfully poisoned for two years, this was the France he returned to; this help to break his spirit. But he would not be long for this world because he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He would die when little Alexandre was 4 years old. The remaining Dumas' would live in poverty until Alexandre reached fame with books.

There are no words to explain how much I love The Black Count! It's ridiculous how much I enjoyed it. Tom Reiss took his time and did his due dilligence to recount to the story of a remarkable man and Dumas was a remarkable man.

He had such honor, integrity, and heart. Considering how unsavory his father was, it was amazing how well General Dumas turned out! I loved how much the novelist Dumas loved his father. He was always in total awe. At least it was true and not just a product of child's imagination. General Dumas was a hero who got a very raw deal in the end.
… (more)
LibraryThing member BookPurring
I grew up reading Dumas pere work, The Count of Monte Cristo is one of my favorite books. Just by reading the synopsis of this book I was hooked as I am sure will happen to other Dumas' fans. There is a lot of detail in this book that I did know now, the author does a great job at referencing real life characters and situations that if one has a good memory and is paying attention can relate to Dumas' work. Characters and situations that show up in his novels Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. The author also does an excellent job at conveying how much Dumas adored his father. I found the snippets from Dumas' memoirs the most interesting. The drawback for me is that it took a long time to become interesting. Almost a 100 pages! The reason being the book goes back to the times of Dumas's great grandfather. Unless you have a keen interest in Saint-Domingue and slavery at the time it's simply hard to get through this part of the book.… (more)
LibraryThing member earthwind
Would that Reiss had spent more time bringing this marvelous man to life for us instead of using our reading time revealing the progress of his research; save that for the notes and bibliography.
This piece of history has great story elements; admirable hero, insightful social issues, heroic action, despicable politics, love story.
Certainly the historical background was necessary but 150 pages into the book, one still waits for words from his pen, a feel for the man himself. Simply to allow his actions and words portray him.
… (more)
LibraryThing member gaisce
A fascinating read about Alex Dumas, and it makes me want to find the unabridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo to see how much of his life is in the pages.

Also, Napoleon, what a dick.
LibraryThing member cbl_tn
Most people recognize the name “Alexandre Dumas” thanks to the enduring popularity of The Three Musketeers. Many people are aware that the novelist Alexandre Dumas had a son Alexandre who was a playwright as well as a novelist. Far fewer are familiar with the original Alexandre Dumas. He was born in what is now Haiti to a French father (a marquis, no less) and a slave mother. He had the great fortune to live in France during a period of great freedom for Africans and people of mixed race. He had the great misfortune to be a contemporary of Napoleon, who took away those liberties when he rose to power.

The first person intrudes at several points in the narrative. This wouldn't be remarkable in an autobiography, but it's unexpected in a biography. The first person passages reveal Reiss's extraordinary efforts to access primary sources that had lain untouched in archives and repositories for two centuries. (Some of the richest sources were stored in a safe whose combination had been lost at the death of the only person who knew it. Thanks to Reiss's persistence, the safe was blown open and Reiss was permitted to view its contents.) The newly discovered primary sources will interest scholars, while Reiss's vivid narrative will appeal to general readers and fans of The Count of Monte Cristo and other action and adventure novels inspired by the life of General Dumas.
… (more)
LibraryThing member MrsLee
A biography of Alex Dumas, the father of Alexandre Dumas and the inspiration for The Count of Monte Cristo and many of the other characters Dumas wrote about.
I never imagined that The Count of Monte Cristo had a real life inspiration, and in fact, I did not know that Alexandre Dumas was a man of color. His father was born into slavery in France's dominion of Saint-Domingue, to a white father who was a scoundrel noble and a slave woman. From there, this biography goes on to describe his rise to military fame and glory in the French Revolution and his disgraceful treatment at the hands of Napoleon. I have never read a biography so full of adventures and highs and lows. I learned much about Revolutionary France, and the history of slavery. It took me a very long time to finish this book, but I do not think that is due to the book or its writing, more due to my state of mind at the moment. It is a testament to the book and writing that although it took me two months to read, there was never a moment when I wanted to quit or put it aside.… (more)
LibraryThing member sailorfigment
The Black Count tells the story of Alexandre Dumas, father of the novelist of the same name. Alex Dumas was born to a white aristocratic French father and a black mother on the French sugar colony of Saint-Domingue. When he was 14 he moved to France with his father and even as a mulatto he was a free man because "No one is [a] slave in France." There he took up the life of French nobility and later joined the army as one of Queen's Dragoons. He entered as a private and rose to general in command of the Army of the Alps.

After glorious (and not so glorious) battles, he traveled France then the Mediterranean with Napoleon. Upon returning from Egypt he was nearly shipwrecked off the Italian coast and was thrown into the dungeon for being a high-ranking French general.

He finally returns home to find the ideas of the French Revolution overthrown by Emperor Napoleon. Due to his skin color he lives out his last few years with none of the respect due a great general. Enter Alexandre Dumas, the novelist, who immortalizes his father's exploits in novels such as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers.

The book is painstakingly researched, the author finding even the smallest traces of Alex Dumas' trail. He goes through great lengths to explain the world around Dumas to help the reader understand the true tragedy of his life. Besides Dumas' story the author includes tidbits about his research, but not so much they detract from the story.

Overall I enjoyed the book. The beginning was a bit slow given that the author gave the background of the setting and time period. His explanations of the French Revolution were easy to follow and the military exploits as exciting as a Dumas novel. The ending was sad (and abrupt), especially after learning about Dumas' life: a man who gave so much for his country is treated worst than dirt in return.

Reiss' book brings the great General Dumas to life again so that perhaps over 200 years later he will get the respect and recognition he deserves.
… (more)
LibraryThing member shadowofthewind
Tom Reiss is a huge fan of Alexandre Dumas. Reading through his attempted memoir, he finds that Dumas idolized his father and that many of his stories are based on his exploits. Going on an adventure of his own, he sets out to find Thomas-Alexandre Dumas Davy de la Pailletrie and reveals a long forgotten history of slavery, racism, adventure, and betrayal.

What’s really interesting about this biography is the history of slavery in French colonies, as well as racism in French society. In a 50 year period, the French provided far more liberty to those born in Saint Domingue (now modern day Haiti) and other colonies. From the 1750s Freedom Trials, ending Slavery in France and most of the colonies, to the French Revolution establishing equality for all men, to the slide back to the Ancien Regime under Napoleon. It’s these three milestones that Alexandre Dumas is tied up in, the changing times affecting his fate.

Reiss’ biography can be very dry in parts. In order to tell the story of Dumas, he must provide a re-telling of the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon. The role of Dumas is lost in the story at times as Reiss must build up context for his role. He becomes a soldier after his father runs up his debts, becoming destitute. He wins fame as France battles all of Europe during the French Revolution. As a result of the Terror, many generals lose their heads, promoting Dumas very quickly for his skill and ability, especially in the cavalry.

He would lead France to victory in the Alps, in Italy, in Austria, and in Egypt. His flag flies high until the rise of Napoleon. Demoted over time despite some of his greatest victories, he would attempt to return to France after Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition, only to be caught in the changing times of Europe. He would become a prisoner of war only to return to France to deal with racism at home. He would die destitute, planting only the seed of idolization to his young child, the author Alexander Dumas. Every novel by Dumas is a novel about his father, his spirit in every story. It is Reiss’s detective work that allows us to see who that spirit really was, long buried by history.
… (more)
LibraryThing member Unreachableshelf
This book tells the fascinating story of General Alex Dumas, father of Alexandre Dumas' the novelist and exactly the sort of larger-than-life figure who could have starred in one of his son's books (and perhaps provided inspiration for some of them). Not only are many of the stories recounted here worthy of an adventure story, but this book also illuminates a side of the French Enlightenment and Revolution that is rarely discussed in more general accounts, of how for a brief period of time in the 18th century there were opportunities and rights available to former slaves and the mixed race children of slaves and their masters in the French motherland (less so in the colonies) that were a century ahead of similar developments in what became the United States or the other English colonies. General Dumas was a true believer in the principles of liberty and equality of the sort that is often forgotten while popular portrayals of the French Revolution focus on the series of demagogues having their enemies executed, and his background shows us why.… (more)
LibraryThing member mkh4d
I found this book very interesting. Wile I have never been a fan of Dumas, I have always been fascinated by the French Revolution. I would recomend this book to anyone who is interested in the french revolution, not just those who are avid readers of Duma's work.
LibraryThing member AliceLiuMissingChunk
There is something profoundly important in Tom Reiss' The Black Count" that relates to how we define our personal stories and the stories of our collective consciousness. The Black Count details the life of Alex Dumas, father of Alexandre Dumas the author of the Count of Monte Cristo. Born to a titled white father and slave mother, Dumas was both sold into and bought out of slavery by his father. When Dumas joined the military, he eschewed the higher rank that was his birthright and entered as a common soldier, taking on his slave mother's name. He quickly earned his way up the ranks. What we can all learn from his experience is that he did not hold on to the wound of his slave experience: He allowed his personal history to define his values, but chose not to allow it to define him as a man. Reiss details the birth of race-based slavery as a relatively new phenomenon when viewed within the annals of all of human history, showing that it was based out of commercial expediency rather than racial superiority. He even gives mention to the fact that the chain of ownership began with black Africans, a fact almost always left out of the slavery discussion. I only mention this because this is a wound that needs closing. Is there racism? Most definitely. Should we stand up against it? Absolutely. But that does not mean people need to define themselves by it. Doing so creates a kind of self-imposed slavery, limiting what a person believes is possible for him/herself. With a good three quarters of black children in America living without a present father figure, Alex Dumas serves as a role model of what kind of person they can be and how powerful the concept of choice is in what they will believe about themselves.

The other thing that Reiss does in The Black Count is to make intricate connections between historical fact and everyday life. There is a tendency these days to reduce complex situations into simplistic rhetoric. When terms like "collateral damage" replace the concept of human tragedy, campaigns are built on "don't you love America," and illegal war are begun over "bringing the evil-doers to justice," we desperately need a different way to understand the world we live in. Instead of interspersing dry historical fact within the Dumas story and expecting the reader to make his/her own connections, Reiss explains the context and consequences with the deftness of a great novelist. The result is that the reader sees the complexities of human history at every level and understands that life cannot be reduced to black and white, dichotomous thinking. Our society needs a paradigm shift into this more "wholistic" way of thinking, where we understand that all our choices have multiple, interconnected consequences. The Black Count is more than just history, it reflects a lesson back to us about our own personal stories and public dialogue.
… (more)

Pages

432

ISBN

030738246X / 9780307382467
Page: 1.179 seconds