Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Black Count, by Tom Reiss

Today I'm looking at a biography of Alex Dumas, father of the famous novelist Alexandre Dumas and grandfather to the playwright of the same name. Alexandre Dumas the writer is by far the most famous of this trio, famous for his novels The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, but that does not mean he was the only larger than life character in his family. In fact, his father looms equally as large in history, albeit in the field of warfare as a general for Republican France rather than a writer. However, the legacy of the first Alex Dumas has largely been forgotten partly because of his conflict with Napoleon, but largely because of his ethnicity. In this biography Reiss explores not only the life of Alex Dumas but the world surrounding him that enabled Dumas to rise to such spectacular heights before falling again into obscurity. There are a couple of issues that I have with this book, but I'll outline them later.

Alex Dumas was born a slave on the island of Haiti, then still the largest sugar-producing colony of France, as well as the world. Dumas's mother was a slave but his father was the feckless Marquis de la Pailleterie, who spent many years in hiding in Haiti but was remarkably proud of his son Alex. When de la Pailleterie returned to France, he brought Dumas with him, initially as a slave but later as his own natural son. Dumas enjoyed all the benefits of being a noble son in the waning days of the Bourbon monarchy, learning horseback riding, fencing, and dancing among many other skills. After a falling out with his father, Dumas joined the regiment of the Queen's Dragoons as a common private. This proved to be to Dumas's advantage when the revolution began in 1789 and very quickly Dumas found himself rising through the ranks of the revolutionary army. Furthermore, Dumas was a firm republican, devoted to the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity and adopted the principles of the French Republic whole-heartedly.

Dumas was further aided by the, at the time, extremely radical attitude of racial equality that the French Republic adopted. The French Republic not only abolished slavery, itself a radical concept at the time and only beginning to gain traction in Britain, but granted full citizenship rights including the right to vote and the right to hold office to all citizens regardless of color. This was a significant boon to the large population of black and mixed-race people who had come to France from its colonies. Thanks to this policy of equality as well as his ability and boundless courage, Dumas was able to rise through the ranks and eventually became the equivalent of a four-star general. Unfortunately Dumas's disagreements with Napoleon, as well as his imprisonment by the government of Naples, led to his decline. Finally Napoleon, never a believer in racial equality, reestablished slavery and relegated people of color firmly to a second-class citizen status. As a result, Dumas was barely remembered in the official histories of France during the Revolution.

Unfortunately there are a couple of issues I have with this book, the biggest one being the sources. In the prologue Reiss goes into an extended account about how he believed there was a cache of lost Dumas family papers in a museum. Before Reiss could arrive the keeper of the papers died and she took the combination of the safe in which they were kept with her. After wrangling with an assistant mayor, Reiss finally bribed the government official to let him break open the safe and take photographs of the documents before the police collected the documents and stored them ''who knows where''. There is something a little too fantastic about this story which makes it sound like bad methodology. After some very cursory searches I don't have reason to believe that Reiss made anything up. I'm sure something would have come out by now if he had. But it is the tiniest bit concerning to me that source he claims to have consulted are not otherwise available. It is at the very least bad methodology and I would have rested easier if I'd known his primary sources were available for other people to check.

Another thing that bugs me about this book is how Reiss tries to play up that the reasons for Dumas's imprisonment were forever a mystery to Dumas and he never understood what role he played in a larger struggle. This is patently false. Dumas may have had some confusion as to why he languished in prison for two years before being ransomed by France, but he certainly understood why he'd been imprisoned. On his return from the poorly-planned Egypt expedition led by Napoleon, Dumas's ship landed in southern Italy, then part of the Kingdom of Naples which was at war with France. Since he was still a high-ranking general in the French Army, Dumas was considered a valuable prisoner and was kept captive by the Neapolitans as a bargaining chip and prisoner of war. Dumas certainly would not have been confused by why he was in prison. As for why he remained there for two years, the answer is simply Napoleon. On a variety of levels Dumas and Napoleon did not get along and it was simply Dumas's ill fortune that he was captured by the Neapolitans while Napoleon launched a coup and established himself as First Consul of a reorganized French Republic. Between his focus on other details and lack of love for Dumas, it is hardly surprising that Napoleon and his subordinates did not overburden themselves with the task of freeing Dumas. In addition, Dumas's republican sentiments might have been a liability considering Napoleon's aims at absolute power and reestablishment of slavery. Perhaps Dumas made these conclusions before he died, but I don't think he was utterly bewildered by his predicament.

Finally Reiss does play into the short man myth of Napoleon as an explanation for why he had such conflict with Dumas. As has been explained in countless other places, Napoleon was actually 5'7" tall (or 170 cm for you people who use rational units). (Interestingly that makes Napoleon a whole two inches or five centimeters taller than me.) For a man of the late eighteenth century this was actually average height. The myth only originated because 1. French inches were larger than English inches so when the English found out Napoleon's height (in French inches) was 5'2", they just took that and ran with it in all their propaganda and 2. (Kalpar's theory) Napoleon was surrounded by his grenadier guards who had to be at least six feet tall to be grenadiers, and also had giant hats that made them look even taller. Seriously. Look at those hats. No wonder he looked short, he was surrounded by freaking tall people with their giant-ass hats all the time. The point of this diversion is that Reiss explains some of the friction between Dumas and Napoleon down to Dumas being 6'1" tall, incredibly well muscled, and basically looking like some sort of eighteenth century version of Keith Hamilton Cobb.  Personally I think it's more likely Napoleon was a racist jerk and also didn't like anybody being more important than himself which was the cause of friction, rather than any ''Napoleon complex''.

Overall I think this was an interesting book. As I said, my biggest concern was the cache of documents Reiss claims he found by breaking into a safe, which may or may not be available. Otherwise, this is a really good book and shows a fascinating life of a man largely forgotten because of the color of his skin.

- Kalpar

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