The Black Count by Tom Reiss

blackcountThis poor book got picked up and put down repeatedly as I dealt with other reading deadlines. It took me two and a half months to read! But I kept coming back. The Black Count came recommended by The World’s Strongest Librarian, and I bought it at Elliot Bay Books in Seattle when I got to finally meet in person my awesome editor at Shelf Awareness, Marilyn. So good vibrations unite in this read.

The “black count” is the father of Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. Much of Dumas’s work, it seems, was based on his father’s life and unique and outlandish experiences. I had not known that; I suspect many readers don’t. Tom Reiss’s work is a biography of Alex Dumas (the father: I will call him Dumas throughout), with an eye to the legacy expressed by the novelist (son: I will call him the novelist), and some background on the French Revolution. Napoleon figures rather heavily in Dumas’s later story and military career.

Dumas was born in Saint-Domingue, which is modern day Haiti, to a black slave mother and a white French father. His father went back and forth somewhat on Dumas’s place in the world, at one point selling his son into slavery but eventually giving him a good education, fancy clothes, and place in French society. He is a physical prodigy early on, adept at horseback riding and fencing, and his military career is illustrious from the beginning. Dumas is an ardent republican, enthusiastic about the revolution, not least because – and here I learned something I probably should have known – the French Revolution was decidedly liberal on its attitude towards black citizens, giving them near-equal or equal rights, privileges and access – at least for a time. Slavery was abolished in France, although the extent to which abolition applied to the colonies varied. And unfortunately, this egalitarianism was short-lived.

The dark-skinned soldier worked his way remarkably quickly up to general of a division, and gave admirable performances in actual hand-to-hand combat: something, then as now, that high-ranking officers often avoid. His feats are literally the stuff of legend, and those military stories are some of Reiss’s stronger moments, naturally. If history is to be believed, Dumas was absolutely worthy of the tales that his novelist son would spin. [Is history to be believed? Reiss did his own research and looked at all the ancient scraps of paper from the time; accounts tend not to vary; the case looks good. But from this historical distance, I think there must always be a question.]

Dumas married for love and had three children, the first of whom died in childhood. His star was rising when Napoleon came to power. Napoleon is the villain of this story, as he is encapsulated in the villain of The Count of Monte Cristo: he rolled back and reversed the Revolution’s racial equity advances, and considered Dumas a formidable rival, apparently because of Dumas’s great accomplishments; the latter seems to have done nothing actually wrong. Dumas is taken as a prisoner of war in Italy and has a miserable time there, which again plays into The Count of Monte Cristo. (Look for enjoyable, comical descriptions of Dumas’s highly formal correspondence with one of his jailers.) It does not appear that Napoleon is actually to blame for this period in Dumas’s life, although possibly he could have done more to get him freed sooner. Following his POW imprisonment, Dumas’s health never recovers; he loses his commission under Napoleon’s racist regime; and he dies when his youngest child, the novelist, is only four years old. The novelist’s glorified view of the father he remembers as Herculean will never be moderated.

As a historian, Reiss is perhaps a bit credulous of Dumas’s perfection. In a description of the soldier’s last hours, there is a priest called, which the novelist is careful to point out could not have been for confession, as his father had never committed even a single regrettable act in his lifetime. This seems like too extreme a statement to stand unquestioned – haven’t we all done something regrettable? …Especially those of us whose career was based on killing people? Dumas had a reputation for humane victory and protection of the defeated from looting, which is admirable. But I have a little trouble stomaching this unqualified hero-worship.

Reiss also unfortunately descends into dryness rather regularly. I several times considered giving up the book; but then I’d give it another go and eventually be mesmerized again by the narrative. He’s at his best when he lets his own story, of researching the book, creep onto the page; or lacking that, when he lets a primary source or Dumas-the-novelist pen a few lines. I should also note that my very slow, stop/start method of reading this book (almost unheard of for me) almost certainly made the story move a little more slowly and more disjointedly. I regret that, and it might have gone a little better otherwise. But I think it’s worth stating that things can get a little slow in the middle. Also, Reiss is happy to go quite a few pages without telling us who one of his characters is, and expect us to remember him. Again, better if you read it all straight through quickly. If you aren’t doing it that way, beware this small problem.

All in all, though, I did find myself motivated to finish the book, and I was rewarded. The Black Count is a good primer on the French Revolution and on Napoleon as well, and the sections that portray exploits in battle are lively. Readers looking for a great deal of insight into Dumas-the-novelist’s work will be at least a little disappointed; but I am definitely putting this book down with a renewed interest in rereading The Count of Monte Cristo, which I loved in high school.

A little dry in the middle, but a mostly-accessible history of the French Revolution and one of its forgotten heroes, with a nod to a very fine novelist who adored his father.

Rating: 5 trees of liberty.

2 Responses

  1. only 5 trees? hmm, I was predicting 6

    Glad to see this review tho’ – I have picked up the book several times at Village Books & was curious; now, you have probably inspired me to read The Count of Monte Cristo instead.

    While the French Revolution has your attention, I highly recommend Marge Piercy’s City of Darkness – with several elements you should appreciate: wise & candid use of historical fiction, a radical woman’s voice and an important bit of history you should know more about. I would say: 7 trees of “Liberté! Egalité! Fraternité!”

    • I do like Marge Piercy – I am remembering her other lengthy war book, on WWII, with a number of individuals’ stories. Gone to Soldiers? Yes, will take that recommendation.

      This one certainly made it above 7 at times, but the slow parts…

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