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The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo Paperback – May 14, 2013
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, September 2012: Generations have been enthralled by Alexandre Dumas' characters, especially the wronged hero in The Count of Monte Cristo and the daring swordsmen in The Three Musketeers. Yet few realize that these memorable characters were inspired by Dumas' father, General Alex Dumas, the son of a French count and a black Haitian slave. Tom Reiss brings the elder Dumas alive with previously unpublished correspondence and meticulous research, providing the context necessary to understand how exceptional his life as a mulatto general in a slave-owning empire truly was. From single-handedly holding a bridge in the Alps against 20 enemies to spending years held captive in a fortress, Alex Dumas is a fascinating character that not even his son's vivid imagination could have dreamed up. --Malissa Kent
An Essay by Author Tom Reiss
I've always loved exploring history. It's like an uncharted hemisphere, and when you look at it closely, it has a tendency to change everything about your own time. I'm also drawn to outsiders, people who have swum against the tide. I often feel like a kind of detective hired to go find people who have been lost to history, and discover why they were lost. Whodunnit?
In this case, I found solid evidence that, of all people, Napoleon did it: he buried the memory of this great man – Gen. Alexandre Dumas, the son of a black slave who led more than 50,000 men at the height of the French Revolution and then stood up to the megalomaniacal Corsican in the deserts of Egypt. (The "famous" Alexandre Dumas is the general's son – the author of The Three Musketeers.) Letters and eyewitness accounts show that Napoleon came to hate Dumas not only for his stubborn defense of principle but for his swagger and stature – over six feet tall and handsome as a matinee idol – and for the fact that he was a black man idolized by the white French army. (I found that Napoleon's destruction of Dumas coincided with his destruction of one of the greatest accomplishments of the French Revolution – racial equality – a legacy he also did his best to bury.)
I first came across Gen. Dumas's life in the memoir of his son Alexandre, the novelist. And what a life! Alex Dumas, as he preferred to be known, was born in Saint Domingue, later Haiti, the son of a black slave and a good-for-nothing French aristocrat who came to the islands to make a quick killing and instead barely survived. In fact, to get back to France in order to claim an inheritance, he actually "pawned" his black son into slavery, but then he bought him out, brought him to Paris, and enrolled him in the royal fencing academy, and then the story begins to get interesting.
What really stuck with me from reading the memoir was the love that shows through from the son, the writer, for his father, the soldier. I could never forget the novelist describing the day his father died. His mother met him on the stairs in their house, lugging his father's gun over his shoulders, and asked him what he was doing. Little Alexandre replied: "I'm going to heaven to kill God – for killing daddy." When he grew up, he took a greater sort of revenge, infusing his father's life and spirit into fictional characters like Edmond Dantes and D'Artagnan, with shades of Porthos, too. But the image of the angry child stuck with me and drove me onward to discover every scrap of evidence I could about his forgotten father.
And recovering the life of the real man behind these stories was the ultimate historical prospecting journey for me: I learned about Maltese knights and Mameluke warriors, the tricks of 18th-century spycraft and glacier warfare, torchlight duels in the trenches and portable guillotines on the front; I got to know about how Commedia del Arte influenced Voodoo and how a Jacobin sultan influenced the Star-Spangled Banner, about chocolate cures for poisoning and the still brisk trade in Napoleonic hair clippings. I discovered the amazing forgotten civil rights movement of the 18th century – and its unraveling – though the most amazing thing about this story of a black man in a white world was how little race stood in his way: how Alex Dumas's future father-in-law never once questioned his daughter marrying a man of color but only asked that he get promoted to sergeant first (later he lovingly referred to his son-in-law simply as "the General").
Finally, the memoir set me not only on a historical adventure but on an adventure in the present day that was straight out of a Dumas novel. I began by visiting the gray town in northeast France where the general died – where I found a dead museum secretary, a locked safe, and a host of unlikely, inspiring characters to make my journey a far from lonely one.
Winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Biography!
“Tom Reiss wrings plenty of drama and swashbuckling action out of Dumas’ strange and nearly forgotten life, and more: The Black Count is one of those quintessentially human stories of strength and courage that also sheds light on the flukey historical moment that made it possible.”
“A remarkable and almost compulsively researched account…The author spent a decade on the case, and it shows.”
—Christian Science Monitor
“Fascinating…a richly imaginative biography.”
—New York Times Book Review
"It would take an incredibly fertile mind to invent a character as compelling, exciting and unlikely as Gen. Alexandre (Alex) Dumas [hence] you might forget, while reading, that The Black Count is a work of nonfiction; author Tom Reiss writes with such narrative urgency and vivid description, you'd think you were reading a novel…The Black Count reminds us of how essential stories, whether true or invented, can be.”
—National Public Radio
“Vibrant…Sometimes the best stories are true. This is one of them.”
“Reiss details the criminal forgetting of Alex Dumas…This remarkable book stands as his monument.”
“Superb... as improbable and exciting as [Dumas’s] best books… but there is much more to this book than that.”
—Newsweek/The Daily Beast
“Lush prose and insightful details make The Black Count one of the best biographies of 2012…a tale that is as easily engrossing as one of Dumas’ page-turning and timeless works.”
“Impressively thorough…Reiss moves the story on at an entertaining pace…fascinating.”
—Wall Street Journal
“To tell this tale, Reiss must cover the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, and the rise of Napoleon toward Empire; he does all that with remarkable verve.”
“Fascinating [and] swashbuckling...meticulously evokes the spirit of Revolutionary and Napoleonic France...Dumas comes across as something of a superhero...a monument to the lives of both Dumas and his adoring [novelist] son.”
—The Seattle Times
“A piece of detective work by a prize-winning author...brilliantly researched.”
—The Daily Mail (U.K.)
“Sometimes real life does, indeed, trump even the wildest of fiction…With a narrative that is engaging and entertaining, Reiss sets the literary table for one of the most satisfying adventure stories of the autumn. Richly detailed, meticulously researched and beautifully written, this is the unlikely true story of the man behind one of the greatest books in literature.”
“Triumphant…Reiss directs a full-scale production that jangles with drawn sabers, trembles with dashing deeds and resonates with the love of a son for a remarkable father.”
—The Herald (U.K.)
“Fascinating….Reiss argues that Dumas is an important, criminally neglected figure [and] it’s difficult to argue with him…A truly amazing story.”
“A story that has everything…The Black Count has its own moving narrative thread, made compelling by Reiss’s impassioned absorption with the general’s fate.”
—The Literary Review
“A thoroughly researched, lively piece of nonfiction that will be savored by fans of Alexandre Dumas. But The Black Count needs no partner: It is fascinating enough to stand on its own.”
“A compelling new work by literary detective Reiss, author of The Orientalist, tracks the wildly improbable career of [Count of Monte Cristo author] Alexandre Dumas’ mixed-race father…Reiss eloquently argues the General’s case.”
“Alex Dumas, an extraordinary man whose sensational life had been largely lost to history solely because of his race, takes the spotlight in this dynamic tale…Reiss capitalizes on his subject’s charged personality as well as the revolutionary times in which he lived to create an exciting narrative.”
“Thrilling…Reiss makes clear that Alex lived a life as full of adventure, triumph, and tragic loss as any of his son’s literary creations…This absorbing biography should redeem its subject from obscurity.”
“From pike-wielding mobs to prisoners locked in a fortress tower, The Black Count is as action-packed as The Count of Monte Cristo. Unlike Dumas’s famous adventure novel, however, Reiss’s incredible tale is true.”
—Candice Millard, New York Times bestselling author of The River of Doubt and Destiny of the Republic
“Tom Reiss has literally drilled into locked safes to create this masterpiece…. His portrait of a man who was arguably our modern age’s greatest unknown soldier is remarkable.”
—James Bradley, New York Times bestselling author of Flags of Our Fathers and Flyboys
“A masterful biography, richly detailed, highly researched, and completely absorbing. The Black Count is a triumph.”
—Amanda Foreman, New York Times bestselling author of A World on Fire and Georgiana
“It’s hard to imagine a more colorful or engaging subject than the man who inspired The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. In the wonderful hands of Tom Reiss, Alex Dumas comes to vivid life, illuminating far-flung corners of history and culture. This is a terrific book.”
—Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of American Lion and Franklin and Winston
“The Black Count is a dazzling achievement. I learned something new virtually on every page. No one who reads this magnificent biography will be able to read The Count of Monte Cristo or any history of slavery in the New World in the same way again.”
—Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, Harvard University
“Rousing and thought-provoking, The Black Count is an adventure like no other. I marveled at every twist and turn of this remarkable true story, brought to life with the charm and personal touch that has become the trademark of Tom Reiss.”
—Laurence Bergreen, New York Times bestselling author of Columbus and Over the Edge of the World
“A riveting, beautifully written and well-researched story of the seemingly impossible. It could never have happened in the United States, and with great skill, Reiss shows how the moment that produced Alex Dumas was lost with the rise of nineteenth-century racism.”
—Annette Gordon-Reed, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for
The Hemingses of Monticello
“In the early 1800s, General Alex Dumas was purposefully disappeared by his enemies, and for too long his story has remained silenced. The Black Count vividly vindicates the great general, restoring him to his rightful place at the center of the Age of Revolution. Carrying us from the plantations of the Caribbean to Paris, the Alps, and Egypt, Reiss tells an engrossing tale of a life of social struggle, adventure, and courage—and of the frustrations and joys of a researcher on the trail of a forgotten truth.”
—Laurent Dubois, author of Haiti: The Aftershocks of History
“A tale worthy of Dumas himself—of impossible odds, shrinking before the irresistible forces of daring, ingenuity and in-your-face talent.”
—Ted Widmer, author of Ark of the Liberties
“The real-life history of General Alex Dumas is as poignant and swashbuckling a tale as any his novelist son could have dreamed. Tom Reiss has the dramatist’s sense of setting and scene, the reporter’s persistence, and the historian’s eye for truth. Would that the imprisoned Count of Monte Cristo had a copy of this book!”
—Darrin M. McMahon, author of Enemies of the Enlightenment and Happiness: A History
“Tom Reiss can do it all: gather startling research and write inspired prose; find life’s great stories and then tell them with real brilliance. In The Black Count the master journalist-storyteller opens the door to the truth behind one of literature’s most exciting stories, and opens it wide enough to show the delicate beauty of the lives within.”
—Darin Strauss, National Book Critics Circle Award–winning author of Half a Life
“Tom Reiss tells this amazing story, largely unknown today, with verve, style, and a nonpareil command of detail.”
—Luc Sante, author of Low Life, Evidence, and The Factory of Facts
“The Black Count is a complex work of political and social history gallantly masquerading as a fantastic adventure story. As he did in The Orientalist, Tom Reiss has traveled far to stalk a forgotten legend, and has recovered for us a vivid, dramatic tale that delights, moves, and inspires.”
—Gideon Lewis-Kraus, author of A Sense of Direction
“The Black Count is totally thrilling—a fascinating, beautifully written, and deeply researched biography that brings to life one of history’s great forgotten characters: the swashbuckling, flamboyant, and romantic mulatto count whose true life belongs in a Hollywood movie or Alexandre Dumas story.”
—Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of Jerusalem: The Biography and Young Stalin
“Tom Reiss tells the incredible story of Alex Dumas with the same excitement about uncovering history that he brought to The Orientalist.”
—Nina Burleigh, New York Times bestselling author of Mirage: Napoleon’s Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt
“We believe we know the glories of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. We believe we understand the horror of slavery and the oppression of Africans. But what is the relationship between the grand goal of liberation and the deep tragedy of racism? As Reiss shows us, answers can be found in the extraordinary life of a forgotten French hero of the great revolutionary campaigns—a hero who was black.”
—Timothy Snyder, author of Bloodlands and The Red Prince
“Reiss combines the talent of a thorough English detective with the literary flair of a French novelist to produce a story that is as fresh as today’s headlines but as old as the Greek classics.”
—Jack Weatherford, New York Times bestselling author of Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World
“Colorful and utterly captivating . . . This is history that is vibrant, gripping, and tragic.”
—William Dietrich, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and New York Times bestselling author of Napoleon’s Pyramids and The Emerald Storm
More Praise for Tom Reiss
"A wondrous tale, beautifully told… mesmerizing, poignant and almost incredible."
—The New York Times
“Spellbinding history… part detective yarn, part author biography, part travel saga… completely fascinating.”
—The Dallas Morning News
“Thrilling, novelistic and rich with the personal and political madness of early twentieth-century Europe.”
"An elaborate wonder-cabinet… as page–turningly compelling as any fiction."
—The Los Angeles Times
“Exhilarating… an endlessly inventive saga.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“A brainy, nimble, remarkable book.”
Top customer reviews
This book is non-fiction, of course, and from it, you may indeed learn much about revolutionary France, French military history of the time, and France’s attempt in the 1790s to abolish slavery. Mr. Reiss never hides his personal feelings about his dislike of Napoleon Bonaparte and may recruit you to his side upon your reading this book. Why Napoleon remains such an admired figure in modern France remains obscure.
The remarkable Dumas family, it’s history and its legacy consume much of the text. The only problem I had with the book was its use of extra-long footnotes – awkward on a Kindle. In addition the entire final 35-40% of the book is what the author calls “Epilogue.” I skipped most of it.
An interesting fact I learned about the writer Alexandre Dumas (who was 25% black, his father 50%) was the answer to this question I always had: Why are his books so long and verbose? Answer: Because he was paid by the line for his writing. Ha!
It’s a fine read, full of action and heroics, found relevant correspondence and sadness. If you like the Dumas family and want to know from where the inspiration, if not the actual characters, for the Dumas novels arose, then by all means read this excellent book. The General Dumas was a grand and impressive figure.
It’s a 4.40, rounded down to a 4.
On the minus side, sometimes the writing was ponderous. I had a hard time keeping track of just what year it was, since the author jumped around a bit in time. I was reading on a kindle, so it was more difficult to go back and check when I realized things were a bit "off", at least in my understanding.
However, I do recommend the book. If you have to, skim through the more ponderous sections (for me that would be the military details) and you'll still pretty much get the main point, namely that the Black Count was one hell of a leader, one hell of a fighter, one hell of a husband and father (however briefly he was home) and was royally screwed over by Napolean!
Reiss personalises the narrative with a graceful charm ... "When I went to Egypt looking for what remained of Dumas and the expedition ..." moving almost seamlessly from the Battle of Aboukir Bay to his personal visit to the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology in the heart of modern Cairo - taking the reader with him to the recent burning of the Institute on December 17, 2011 (a by-product of the Tahrir Square protests}.
Reiss' reportage of the inter-racial relationships of the era are dealt with frankly and honestly as is the destruction of the concepts of liberte,egalite,and fraternite by the megalomaniacal Bonaparte.
I know that I shall read this book again!
The French Revolution led to many enlightened milestones, including the granting of equal rights to blacks, a breakthrough that belatedly inspired rebellion against France's extremely cruel system of slavery in its West Indies colonies. It also led to the liberation of the Jews from the ghettos, as well as greater rights for minorities, women and commoners wherever the.revolution spread. At the same time, the revolution featured terrible arbitrary cruelty and injustice, especially against the Christian clergy and the wealthy, as guillotines were erected in towns ruled by the revolutionaries. Many innocent people were unjustly murdered.
When Napoleon took the reins of power, liberty, equality and fraternity tended to be eclipsed by egomania, rank and empire. Of course, after Waterloo, Europe reverted to its old ways as the republican innovations were rescinded.
Through it all, Alex Dumas, son of a slave woman and a white planter, Alexander Dumas's father, shone as a beacon of bravery, military brilliance, and fairness, embodying the ideals of the revolution as they were originally meant to be. His career tended to follow the arc of the revolution, ascending rapidly as revolutionary forces advanced, declining as Napoleon arose and corrupted republican practices, and then coming to a bad end as he was imprisoned for years in Italy on his way back from Napoleon's disastrous Egyptian venture, a stint that broke his health.
Alexander Dumas based his famous novels on his father's life. The author demonstrates interesting biographical parallels with these works and is to be commended for his tireless and painstaking research efforts in uncovering the documents that enabled him to write this amazing book.