I found this book by Tom Reiss when it was on display at my local library for African-American history month (which just goes to show how long it took me to get around to reading it and then writing this blog post). I had never heard of it, although the cover informed me it had won a Pulitzer. It sounded fascinating so I picked it up and just barely managed to finish it before it was due back.
I read some of Alexandre Dumas’s stuff when I was a kid. I remember The Three Musketeers being just as much fun as the film adaptations. I liked The Count of Monte Cristo, but I read an abridged version that was 500 pages long and I still remember wondering when it would end (I did finish it, but I may have been a little young to be reading books that long).
Dumas Was Black?
I may be showing my naïveté here, but I had had no idea Dumas was black before I found this book, which is part of why it intrigued me so much. The other part is: who wouldn’t want to read about a slave who was freed by his master/father, brought to France as a gentleman, and ascended the ranks of the French army purely on his own merit (and the fact that he was lucky enough to survive the revolution). Dumas was present during some of the pivotal moments of the French Revolution, got up close and personal with Napoleon, traveled to Egypt and back, was taken prisoner, and barely survived prison before finally making it home.
The Son As Biographer
It turns out Dumas wrote a fair amount about his father (who was also named Alexandre Dumas, but went by “Alex,” which is what Reiss calls him to avoid confusion with his son), but it’s less than reliable. Alexandre was just four years old when his father died, but he claims to have a very clear memory of the night his father died. While his father no doubt told him stories of his adventures when he was still alive, it’s more likely that Alexandre got his information from his mom and from another general who fought in the French army alongside Alex.
In some cases, Alexandre’s version of the story is the only one we have. In others, there are other documents disputing Alexandre’s version of events, such as a police report of an incident involving Alex and another gentleman. Another story has only two versions: Alexandre’s and Napoleon’s, neither of which is exactly reliable. But hey, what more could you want as a sign of having led a notable life than the fact that Napoleon dropped your name in his memoir?
Occasionally, Reiss mentions a story in which Alexandre’s version of events is the only existing version, so we’ll just have to take it with a grain of salt.
I learned so much from this book. Not just about the two Alexandre Dumas, but about the French Revolution, the American Revolution, slavery and racism and how it differed between different countries and different parts of the world.
To me, the eeriest part of the book was when Reiss said that, along with the ideals of freedom, equality, and brotherhood, was an overall decrease in racist sentiments, which was followed by a backlash that swung the racist pendulum the other direction so that Alexandre actually encountered more racism than his father. Sound familiar?
What did you read this week? Anything else that taught you about even more things than you had been planning on learning?