Monday, December 10, 2012

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss

A real-life adventure as captivating as any literary epic
Tom Reiss’s 2012 book, The Black Count, is the biography of an extraordinary, larger-than-life character in the history of France. Thomas-Alexander Davy de la Pailleterie, more commonly known by the name Alex Dumas, is best remembered today as the father of Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, and dozens of other classic literary adventures. The elder Dumas’s life was a compelling adventure in itself, even rivaling the exciting novels of his illustrious son. Born the child of a French nobleman and a black slave on a plantation in what is now Haiti, Alex Dumas went on to achieve success and glory in the French military, rising to prominence during the Revolution and becoming the highest ranking black man in European military history. General Dumas accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte on the 1798 French campaign to Egypt, fighting alongside the future Emperor and at times butting heads with him. Later events in Dumas’s life would prove that getting on Napoleon’s bad side was not a wise choice.

Reiss emphasizes that the French Revolution was a remarkable time in the history of race relations. Fueled by the liberal values spawned by the Enlightenment, as expressed in the Revolutionary credo of “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité!”, an unprecedented equality among men of all races was established in France. Seventy years before America’s Emancipation Proclamation, in a world where slavery was a common fact of life, the French not only freed their slaves but also created a society where men of color had the opportunity to reap the benefits of their abilities on an equal footing with whites. Later, when Napoleon established himself as dictator of France, he threw out many of the Revolution’s enlightened racial policies, and successful men of color like Dumas were left feeling betrayed and robbed of their due merits. It’s a bit ironic that a book which praises racial equality focuses so much on race. General Dumas’s life was incredibly interesting and exciting, regardless of his race, yet his story is so inextricably entwined with the racial policies of his lifetime that it’s all but inevitable to view him as an exemplar of triumph over prejudice and discrimination.

Dumasophiles expecting non-stop swashbuckling may be disappointed to find themselves reading chapters devoted to the sugar industry or slavery legislation. At times the biographical narrative thread seems a bit thin and overwhelmed by its historical context. But what context! Reiss is a genius at summarizing the complex events and philosophical ideas of the French Revolution. Never has this labyrinthine period of history been so pithily encapsulated. French history enthusiasts will love the book, but even those with little prior knowledge of the subject will be ably guided by Reiss through the twists and turns of the era.

Reiss repeatedly draws parallels between the life of Alex Dumas and the novels of his son Alexandre, but he doesn’t belabor the point. This is by no means a work of literary criticism. One need not have read The Count of Monte Cristo in order to understand or enjoy this book (though you should read it, because it’s a fantastic novel). This is purely a biography of a fascinating man and a history of a fascinating time. The Black Count is an immensely entertaining read for any history buff or adventure junkie. It’s only major fault is that it’s so good it leaves you wanting more.

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