This book won the Pulitzer Prize for biography and richly deserves it for introducing us to the inspiring story of a man who went from slave to General in the French Revolutionary Army. Born Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie; by the time he joins the army, he rejects his father's name and title (Marquis de la Pailleterie) and takes his slave mother's name--Dumas. His dispatches from the front are signed simply "Alex Dumas." He rises through the ranks from private to General and is Commander of the Calvary in Napoleon's disastrous Egyptian campaign. His adventures and battles are a compelling story all by themselves. But Reiss gives us much more.
While many of us may know the basics of the French Revolution, and some have studied the gory details, this book gives us a new angle. General Alex Dumas reached his pinnacle through his own intelligence, perseverance, personal bravery, and ambition. But he would not have been allowed to try during any other time in European history. The French who fought in the American War for Independence came home with a revolutionary spirit and a thirst for equality--not only for themselves, but all Frenchman, free and slave. They were the first country in Europe to not only abolish slavery, but also to grant full rights of citizenship to "men of color." Free black men voted in assemblies, studied in elite French academies, fought in integrated military units, and rose to positions of authority and command in the military and government. This expression of egalite and fraternite lasted until Napoleon took power and (with the rich planter class backing him) reversed all those hard-won freedoms and rights.
The third layer to this book is the enduring and loving relationship between the General and his son (who eventually became the novelist Alexandre Dumas). Reiss begins and ends his book with General Dumas' death and the impact it had on his four-year-old son. Throughout the book, he illuminates the real life adventures that inspire the boy, many years later, to immortalize his father in fiction. What I found most sad was that the son suffered much more harshly for his race than his father. Raised in poverty (Napoleon withheld Dumas' pension after he died), denied a good secondary education, and taunted by racial epithets during his literary career; Alexandre Dumas rose above all to create enduring and beloved fiction. His martial father would have been proud.
A good biographer presents his subject in the context of the times with lively and engaging writing. Reiss delivers with a well-documented book that pulls at the heart strings while giving us a window into European race relations of the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century and the true stories behind some of the best adventure fiction written. Highly recommended.
- Title: The Black Count: Glory Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo
- Author: Tom Reiss
- Publisher: Broadway Paperback (an imprint of Crown Publishing Group), 2012
- ISBN: 978-0307382474
- Format: Trade paperback, 414 pgs
- Price: $16.00