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The Black Count by Tom Reiss

June 16, 2013

The Black Count

I have been hearing really good things about this book for quite a few months now. I’ve seen it in the best seller lists, and front and center in the San Jose Airport Bookshop (where many of the brilliant techies from the Silicon Valley fly in and out), but when I realized that it managed to snag the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography, I knew it was a must-read. I am so glad I did!

The Black Count is the biography of a man who should, by his merit alone, stand out in history of the French Revolution – General Alex Dumas. That history forgot him and he is now only remembered because of his truly remarkable son, the novelist Alexandre Dumas, is a real tragedy. Tom Reiss manages to bring the story of this hero back to life in a way I’m sure the dramatic novelist would have approved of.

General Dumas was an extraordinary man living during an extraordinary time. Not only was he a black man in France (the son of a titled Frenchman and a freed slave from Saint Domingue) he lived at at time of political upheaval when changes in the social code meant that “Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité” applied to all men, black and white alike. The fact that he was able to rise to the rank of General says a lot about France during the decade from 1789 – 1799.

Reiss carefully and thoughtfully interweaves the biography of Dumas with the events of the French Revolution, with particular attention given to civil liberties and social rights. I found the historical aspects of this book incredibly interesting; Reiss’ approach to the French Revolution was new and engaging. I had never realized just how much progress French society had made towards the abolishment of slavery, the racial integration of schools, and the legal protection of racial minorities to live in France, own property, and climb the social strata. This was at a time when the United States, as a brand new country, was becoming increasingly restrictive on the enslaved population. Dumas became a general of the French army in 1795, 25 years before the birth of legendary black activist Frederick Douglass who would spend his life fighting for basic civil rights for people of color in the United States.

General Dumas distinguished himself multiple times in famous battles from the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, even fighting alongside Napoleon in Italy and Egypt, becoming a key officer for the emperor (then general) in the Egyptian expedition. Personal conflict with Napoleon along with conflicting political beliefs (Dumas believed in the republic, Napoleon believed in himself) thew the general into disrepute with the increasingly radical government and his military career, along with the civil rights enjoyed by blacks during the Revolution, was thrown under the cart to pave the way for what would come to be a very different kind of government.

It isn’t hard to see why the general’s son, Alexandre, grew up idolizing his father. He researched his father’s military exploits extensively and incorporated the most incredible facets into the lives of his best characters. D’Artagnan from The Three Musketeers famously schedules three duels in one day and later fights the enemy when outnumbered 5-to-1, both taken directly from officially documented events in military campaigns. He even bases his most famous character of all, Edmond Dantès from The Count of Monte Cristo, on the turn of his father’s fortune in the shadow of Napoleon. He gives his protagonist the power of revenge, something his own father never got.

I grew up adoring the books of Alexandre Dumas; The Count of Monte Cristo is still my favorite book of all time. Reading this biography felt like seeing the best parts of all the characters come to life. It’s a real tragedy that General Alex Dumas, who wasn’t just strong and brave, but was also a fighter for the protection of women, the poor, and even the ‘enemy’ population during times of war, was forgotten for so long. This book does a fantastic job of bringing his memory back from the dead.

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From → Non-Fiction

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