Letter to the Editor

By Tom Reiss, Robert ZaretskyAugust 20, 2013

Letter to the Editor

The Black Count by Tom Reiss

To the Editors of The Los Angeles Review of Books:

IN HIS REVIEW of The Black Count, Robert Zaretsky makes plain that he finds my style of writing history overly familiar, unorthodox, and grandstanding. He is entitled to dislike my style, but contrary to many side-swipes he makes in the course of his review, The Black Count meets the rigorous academic standards of which he believes himself a champion. 

Zaretsky begins by taking issue with a handful of the thousands of historical assertions I make in the book. Some of these are hair-splitting: Crowds or mobs? Is there irony in Louis XVI’s support for the American Revolution? France did not unleash the age of the philosophes, he maintains, because it drew on English and Dutch forbears who “did the grunt work.” Some rely on quotations taken out of context, as on the subject of France’s slavery laws. He cites a study by Malik Ghachem — published as The Black Count was going to press — to point out that the Code Noir responded to slave resistance, misinterpreting my passage on the subject as ascribing its sole origin to Versailles’s penchant for legalism. I do offer the love of codification as one of the factors that led to the Code. I also call attention to a more direct motivation behind it, the fact that it was “a response to widespread alarm over illegitimate unions.” In any case, Ghachem himself claims only to offer “one way of interpreting the impetus behind the Code Noir.”[i]

In other instances, Zaretsky simply gets his facts wrong. Some of these are marginal to the book’s main subject. Exceptions can be found, but to say that “Greeks mostly enslaved other Greeks” is false. The historical consensus is precisely the reverse, in keeping with a cultural ethos that Plato, Aristotle, Euripides, and Xenophon all emphasized.[ii]

Other false claims touch closer to General Dumas’s story. Zaretsky thinks my understanding that the cahiers de doléances got “ordinary people involved in government,” is naive given that “most ordinary people found their words edited out by the influential bourgeois and aristocratic members who oversaw the process.” Yet as Gilbert Shapiro and John Markoff conclude in their landmark study, while there are some indications of “elite influence on the drafting of a few particular categories of demands in the peasant cahiers,” there is “stronger evidence of the absence of such influence for the vast majority of subjects.”[iii]  Numerous historians have shown how “drawing up the cahiers politicized many ordinary people throughout France.”[iv]

Zaretsky also misreads the book — and history — on more important issues. He imagines that I portray the French Revolution as an absolute break with the past, though nowhere do I take sides in this false dichotomy. Like most historians, I see both continuity and rupture in the Revolution. I highlight how a mid-18th-century civil rights movement predicated on the Old Regime’s own “freedom principle” prepared the way for the Revolution to abolish slavery and promote racial equality. Zaretsky similarly suggests I deny Bonaparte any credit for preserving revolutionary gains, whereas The Black Count actually underscores Bonaparte’s “maddeningly contradictory legacy,” describing him as a destroyer who was also a liberator.  If I emphasize Bonaparte’s destructive side, it is because his legacy for people of color was unequivocally negative.

Zaretsky would have readers believe that I am just walking the same ground others have walked before. He maintains that my book is indistinguishable “in its essentials” from a 146-page military history monograph by John Gallaher.[v] My book is not only based on many more primary sources and offers a far broader context than Gallaher’s slim volume, but I also disagree with him on fundamental points. While Gallaher concludes, for instance, that Bonaparte would not forgive Dumas for leaving Egypt, I cite new evidence showing that the commander-in-chief did not object to Dumas’s departure. He resolved instead to “let him carry elsewhere both the delirium of his republicanism and his passing furies,” in words the Egypt expedition’s chief medical officer, Nicolas-René Desgenettes, ascribed to Bonaparte.

Zaretsky tries to dismiss the documents I found in a locked safe in France because my anecdote about hiring a safe-cracker to retrieve them strikes him as too bravura and too much like “a television crew filming a documentary.” But those documents were crucial — not least General Dumas’s hand-written account of his time in the fortress prison of Taranto, Italy. My book is also the first to use the incredible details found in the unpublished third volume of Desgenettes’s memoir, including the passage quoted above, and the first to bring primary sources about Dumas’s fellow prisoner Déodat Dolomieu into the story. Through a closer reading of Dumas’s military file, I noticed his first contact with Napoleon and placed him for the first time at the 1791 Champ de Mars massacre.  I bring to light aspects of his professional and personal life too numerous to mention.

Zaretsky insinuates I have written a “romantic” history, overly reliant on the memoirs of Dumas’s novelist son, though I constantly contextualize that source, confirming it or refuting it with other documents. Is my portrait of Dumas airbrushed and hagiographic because I failed to mention a moment in his life when he acted “insubordinate and boorish”? Dumas is genuinely heroic, as Zaretsky agrees, but I cover important instances in which his hot-headed manner brought him needless trouble.

The Black Count offers the most comprehensive account available of General Alexandre Dumas and the role he played in the multiracial society that briefly gained a foothold in France before Napoleon’s coup, drawing from twelve archives and two centuries’ worth of secondary sources. I wrote my book for a general audience, but I went to every length to assure that future scholars would find my work a solid foundation upon which to build their own.


Tom Reiss

[i] Malick W. Ghachem, The Old Regime and the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 60.

[ii] G.E.M de Sainte-Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World: From the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), 416; Harry Sidebottom, Ancient Warfare: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 55; Thomas Weidemann, Greek and Roman Slavery (Florence, KY: Routledge, 1980), 215; Peter Hunt, Slaves, Warfare, and Ideology in the Greek Historians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 159; Paul Finkelman, “The Significance and Persistence of Proslavery Thought,” in Steven Mintz and John Stauffer, eds., The Problem of Evil: Slavery, Freedom, and the Ambiguities of American Reform (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007), 96; Takeshi Amemiya, Economy and Economics of Ancient Greece (Florence, KY: Routledge, 2007), 28.

[iii] Gilbert Shapiro and John Markoff, Revolutionary Demands: A Content Analysis of the Cahiers de Doléances of 1789 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 165.

[iv] Daryl M. Hafter, Women at Work in Preindustrial France (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University, 2007), 229.

[v] John G. Gallaher, General Alexandre Dumas: Soldier of the French Revolution (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1997).


Response from Robert Zaretsky:

TOM REISS makes a number of charges against my review of his book The Black Count. First, he states that I found his “style of writing overly familiar, unorthodox and grandstanding.” If by “overly familiar” Reiss means “clichéd,” I’m guilty as charged. But I don’t know how to reconcile that quality with “unorthodox” — if anything, Reiss’s narrative is all too dismally orthodox insofar as the narrative is less about the subject than the author. And this, I suppose, is another expression for grandstanding. But as Reiss suggests, this is perhaps a matter of taste.

As for my critique of Reiss’s work as an historian, let’s look at his claims. He states that I frequently split hairs, dismissing my distinction between “mob” and “crowd” — one which anyone familiar with the work of George Rudé will immediately understand — and my reminder that it was the English and Dutch, and not the French, who “unleashed” (Reiss’s unfortunate choice of words, not mine) the Enlightenment. If Reiss is right, someone should tell Jonathan Israel, who has just completed his seminal, three-volume, 3,000 page study of the Enlightenment, which reveals that the Enlightenment was neither French nor unleashed, that he has devoted his life to splitting hairs.

Reiss then claims I took “quotations out of context,” but cites just one: his discussion of the Black Code in Saint-Domingue, about which I remarked he seems to attribute the laws to the French “love of codification.”  He takes issue with my characterization, but how else should I understand his introduction to the Code on page 29: “Because Versailles loved laws and orders, France was the first country to codify colonial slavery.” Ten pages later, Reiss adds that one of the Code’s articles “was drafted, at least in part [my italics], in response to widespread alarm.” I will leave it to the reader to determine which causal factor Reiss emphasizes and if I’ve taken the quote out of context. As for Reiss’s plea that Malick Ghachem claims only to offer “one way of interpreting the impetus behind the Code Noir,” the reader must again judge which is more convincing as a causative agent: the love of codification proposed by Reiss or the battery of social and political concerns analyzed by Ghachem. 

As for the Reiss’s response to my remark concerning Greeks and slavery, let me quote Reiss’s phrase in his book: “In Greece and Rome, slavery was the fate of prisoners of war and barbarians, anyone not lucky enough to have been born Greek or Roman.” No doubt many slaves were “barbarians”—defeated Thracians, for example, or Scythians. But as Yvon Garlan notes in his path-breaking study of slavery in ancient Greece, given the rules of warfare, along with the fact that Greek poleis were incessantly at war with one another, these “prisoners of war” were also frequently bound to be fellow Greeks. Reiss cites the philosophers Aristotle and Plato as evidence of his claim; but if he wants a better understanding of this aspect of ancient Greece, he would benefit from reading the historians Herodotus and Thucydides.

But neither Reiss nor I is an historian of ancient Greece. Let us, then, turn to France, a subject we both know more about. Or, it seems, one I wrongly thought I knew more about. On the subject of the cahiers des doléances, he accuses me of falsely claiming that most commoners found themselves shunted aside during the editing of these “complaints” delivered to the Estates General. As evidence, he cites one work, by Markoff and Shapiro, which in fact partly supports my statement. (They acknowledge the role of “elite influence” in the drafting of the documents.) Let me cite, in turn, William Doyle — one of our era’s greatest authorities — who in his Oxford History of the French Revolution (which doesn’t appear in Reiss’s bibliography) concluded that “popular concerns had largely been strained out” of these documents. (p.134)

And what do we mean by “popular concerns”? After all, leaders of the Third Estate like the Abbé Sieyès wrote primers for the local delegations to follow as they drafted their individual cahiers. In 1789, we do hear the voice of the people — but Paris had trained that voice and, to a degree, provided the libretto. To ignore this fundamental aspect to the production of the cahiers is as wrongheaded as to ignore the role of the Koch brothers and powerful interest groups in the platforms of the Tea Party. Finally, Reiss insists there are “numerous historians” (though he doesn’t name names) who assert that the writing of the cahiers “politicized many ordinary people.” Well, okay. But “politicizing” ordinary people and, as Reiss wrote, “getting them involved in government” strike me as two very different propositions. I imagine that viewers of Fox and MSNBC are politicized, but I also wonder if the extent of their active participation goes beyond clicking their remote controls and muttering to their spouses. 

No doubt I’m again splitting hairs, but this distinction begins to explain why Reiss’s book will not, despite his wish, serve as a “solid foundation” for future scholars. Yes, the Revolution was as Reiss argues an unprecedented popular movement, but it was one that a series of elites and individuals did their best to represent, ride and sometimes master. There was, argues Keith Michael Baker (a leading intellectual historian of the Revolution who didn’t make it onto Reiss’s bibliography), a constant battle to represent (and misrepresent) the “people” and the popular will during this period. Napoleon was one of these individuals, of course, and it simply isn’t good enough to say, as does Reiss in his book, that Bonaparte’s legacy was “maddeningly contradictory.” He also has to recognize the man’s contradictory character, which he largely fails to do. Even the great Marxist historian Georges Lefebvre emphasized Bonaparte’s “detestation of feudalism, civil inequality and religious inequality” as sources to his early and sincere attachment to the Revolution. (This description is in Lefebvre’s book Napoléon, which also failed to make Reiss’s bibliography.) Lefebvre and most other academic historians avoid interpreting the early phases of Napoleon’s career in light of the later phases—an historiographical imperative Reiss violates in his first reference to Bonaparte: “the man still known as General Bonaparte was convinced [in 1795] he was destined to rise above his contemporaries to be much more than a general.” (p.196) Perhaps Napoleon did believe this, but I’d dearly like to know how Reiss knows this, because his endnotes do not offer an answer.

Now, where does Dumas figure in all of this? Well, strictly speaking, he does not begin to figure until nearly sixty pages into the narrative. Before we reach this point, we read about busting open the safe an about the slave trade and society in Saint-Domingue (in his acknowledgments, Reiss thanks a nameless Haitian for showing him how to harvest cane, but does not indicate if he sent him a copy of the book, or how that lesson influenced his take on Haiti). Reiss also presents Dumas’ family’s background and the father’s life in France and Saint-Domingue. But as for young Dumas, there is precious little, largely because there is precious little documentation. This explains the “no doubts,” “must haves” and “could haves” that ripple across these pages, along with Alexandre Dumas père’s memories that Reiss introduces with an oddly convoluted qualification: “One day, in another world, [Dumas] would tell his own son about his life in the tropics and make it sound like a wonderland, and so it must have seemed, in retrospect.” Let’s recall, since Reiss does not, that Dumas père was barely four when his father died. If this is an example of Reiss’s claim that he “constantly contextualizes that source,” I am not quite sure what to think, except that the phrase “constantly contextualizes” itself requires contextualization, constant or otherwise.

Reiss writes that I “would have readers believe that [he is] just walking the same ground others have walked before.” This was not my intention. I meant to acknowledge that Reiss does cover ground others have not walked before, but that that ground, while picturesque, is mostly irrelevant. Clear away the scenery and, in the essentials, there is no fundamental difference between the portraits of Dumas offered by Reiss and Gallaher — except that Gallaher seems a bit less starry-eyed than Reiss. The one fundamental point he does mention is that while Gallaher believed Bonaparte “would not forgive Dumas for leaving Egypt,” he cites evidence to the contrary. It seems that Reiss is now hair splitting. At the very least, I fail to see how this discovery fundamentally changes our understanding of Dumas, Napoleon or anything of any import. 

What is a matter of much importance—the relationship between Dumas and General Kellermann — Reiss only obliquely refers to. As in his book, Reiss fails in his letter to mention Kellermann’s name: an omission that strikes me as simply bizarre. Kellermann’s role in Dumas’ military career was pivotal, as was the way it reveals important aspects to Dumas’s personality that I think Reiss underplays. He portrays Dumas as a selfless and sacrificial warrior for the Revolution’s ideals and ascribes his acts of insubordination to mere recklessness. But what he calls Dumas’ “hot-headedness,” I call his sheer ambition — the very same quality that drove Napoleon. Our age certainly stands in need of heroes, but real heroes have real flaws.

As for the contents of the safe — the bang with which Reiss begins his story — he claims the documents he found inside were crucial. But he goes on to discuss just one of those ostensibly crucial papers, Dumas’ handwritten account of his imprisonment in Taranto. As far as I can tell, however, all that distinguishes the handwritten account from the account that Dumas père publishes in its entirety in the first volume of his Memoirs is, well, that it’s handwritten. Moreover, as far as I can tell, all that distinguishes Reiss’s use of this document from Gallaher’s is, well, the heavy breathing.

I know the reader must be exhausted by now, but I will one last time it leave to her to judge the respective merits of Reiss’s book and Gallaher’s “146 page military history.” Contrary to Dumas (and Reiss), it may well be more is not always more. 

LARB Contributors

Tom Reiss is an American author, historian, and journalist. He known as the author of The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, which was honored with the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography. His previous books include Führer-Ex: Memoirs of a Former Neo-Nazi and The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life, which became an international bestseller. As a journalist, he has written for The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times.

Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. His books include Nîmes at War: Religion, Politics, and Public Opinion in the Gard, 1938–1944 (1994), Cock and Bull Stories: Folco de Baroncelli and the Invention of the Camargue (2004), Albert Camus: Elements of a Life (2010), Boswell’s Enlightenment (2015), A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning (2013), and Catherine and Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment (2019). His newest book is Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.


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