The Swashbuckling Tale of General Dumas

Dumas may have used his father’s life as literary inspiration. Universal History Archive-Getty Images

Villers-Cotterêts is a small, drab town to the north of Paris, with a long main street of gray stone and stucco. There are a few good restaurants, a musty hotel, and a once-royal chateau that was famous, 300 years ago, for dinners at which all the guests went nude. A few years back, we stopped for the night on our way to somewhere else, and in the morning took a look at a statue of the town’s most famous son: Alexandre Dumas, wrapped in a bronze greatcoat and holding a quill. It seemed an odd place to find him, a long way from the musketeers’ glory, though the explanation is simple enough. His soldier-father was once stationed there and had married a local girl. How the future General Dumas got to that little town in the first place is another story, though, and one as improbable and exciting as his son’s best books.

Anyone who has read The Orientalist will remember the expert hand with which Tom Reiss can put together the lost traces of a curious life. His new subject is much better known than the “Kurban Said” of that earlier book—better known, but still obscured by the fame not only of his son but also of a onetime artillery officer from Corsica. Those who have already heard of “Alex” Dumas will probably know two things about him: he was black and he was one of Napoleon’s generals. Only one of those “facts” is really true. He became a general in the Army of Republican France, and though he did serve under the future emperor in Egypt, his own promotion had come first. He owed nothing to Napoleon, whom he appears to have disliked and distrusted. But he was indeed black, the Haitian-born son of a slave and her French owner, and in fact a slave himself until 1776, when he arrived in France at age 14.

The story begins in Normandy, with an impoverished aristocrat called Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie, who after a time in the Army took himself to the colonies in search of a fortune. In Reiss’s words, “sugar planting was the oil business of the 18th century,” and France’s most valuable imperial possession was what was then called Saint-Dominique, its sweetly “staggering wealth ... supported by staggering brutality.” Antoine never made much money, but he did buy a woman named Marie-Cessette Dumas, with whom he had at least four children. Three of them he sold, along with their mother, when he returned to France to claim his family’s chateau and title. He kept only the oldest boy, Thomas-Alexandre, whom he now turned into a young man of fashion.

In The Black Count, his new biography of the general, Reiss does a superb job in showing the complicated ways in which French law and social mores dealt with the question of race. The part of Haiti in which Antoine lived was then known for the prosperity of its “free people of color,” who often surpassed the white colonists in “sophistication and snobbishness.” In essence, Antoine’s noble status trumped all, and in Paris his son learned to fence and to ride, to enjoy the good life of the last days of the ancien régime. Reiss does record an incident at the theater when the young man was insulted because of his race, but on the whole he fit comfortably into his new world. He was tall, muscular, and athletic—well dressed, handsome, and with an open temperament. What determined his future wasn’t his birth so much as his father’s remarriage. The old man married his housekeeper, and Thomas-Alexandre, as if in protest, enlisted in the Army, under his mother’s surname, as a private.

I won’t rehearse the tale of how that former slave won promotion in the armies of the French Revolution; of cavalry charges and mountaintop battles in which the general led from the front. It’s as unlikely as anything his son ever wrote, and in some ways the father does appear to have inspired the works that followed. He commanded large armies with success, but preferred to put himself at the head of small and highly mobile groups. In this he recalls D’Artagnan of The Three Musketeers and its many sequels; today he probably would have been in the special forces.

The real connection, however, is with The Count of Monte Cristo. Dumas was no Jacobin, but he did believe in the revolution and in the claims of representative government. He went to Egypt as a cavalry commander in 1798 and quickly grew disenchanted with Napoleon’s growing cult of personality; a disenchantment that would probably have given him trouble if something worse hadn’t gotten in the way. He picked a leaky boat in which to return to France, and put into a Neapolitan harbor for repairs at precisely the wrong moment. The royal government in the south of Italy was determined to suppress anything French, and Dumas was taken prisoner, thrown in jail, and virtually forgotten. He did not spend as long in prison as his son’s Edmond Dantes, but it did break his health; he died in 1806. Napoleon remembered that the Egyptians thought the tall, dark man must be the French commander, and was not generous to his widow.

Some parts of The Black Count will be familiar to anyone who knows the period, for Reiss has stretched the story out with a portrait of Paris in the 1780s and several chapters that detail the course of the French Revolution. Still, many readers will find that background useful. The book does provide an entirely admiring portrait of Alex Dumas, and one wonders whether the man’s character was so completely unshadowed; but then Reiss admits that he writes as a lifelong admirer of the general’s hero-worshipping son. As in The Orientalist, he makes the tale of his own research an essential part of his narrative, one that involves a blown safe in Villers-Cotterêts, in which he found a trove of the general’s private papers that no earlier biographer had seen. Scholarship should be so exciting more often, but there is much more to this book than that, including a masterful account of French colonialism and a great deal of painstaking archival work. Not the least of Tom Reiss’s achievements is to make it all look easy. None of it was.