In his acknowledgements, Reiss credits his mother’s weathered French edition of Le comte de Monte-Cristo, which she read as a child in wartime France, as one of the reasons he wrote this account of Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, the father of the novelist (and grandfather of the playwright). Not surprisingly, Reiss in turn emphasizes that Dumas’s novels were fueled by his father’s own experiences in earlier wars. These experiences, we discover, were as remarkable and romantic as the man who related them to his son. They also allow Reiss — though with less literary panache than Dumas and, at times, an equally cavalier treatment of history — to introduce us to the world that, come 1789, replaced the Old Regime.
Thomas-Alexandre Dumas Davy de la Pailletrie was born on the French colony of Saint-Domingue, the western end of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, which would become Haiti after winning its independence from France in 1804. Thanks to its fields of sugarcane and the slave population that cultivated them, Saint-Domingue’s export gave a tremendous rush not just to those wealthy enough to afford it, but also to the French economy. In 1685, France promulgated le code noir, the Black Code, a battery of laws codifying relations between slaves owners and slaves. This ticklish operation — French law had long forbidden slavery — was not undertaken, as Reiss writes, simply because “Versailles loved laws and orders.” Instead, as the legal historian Malik Ghachem has recently argued, it marked an “effort to salvage France’s Caribbean dominion.” It sought to reinforce the safety of the white population against rebellious slaves, yet at the same time prevent those same whites from provoking rebellions by the sadistic treatment of their “property.”
Notwithstanding these laws, which were mostly ignored by the plantation owners, conditions for the slave population were hellish. In one of the bleakest moments in Voltaire’s Candide, the young hero, arriving in the sugar-producing Suriname, stumbles across a slave who is missing a hand and a foot. He asks how this came to pass, and the slave replies: “This is the price at which you eat sugar in Europe.” Apart from one colony being owned by the Dutch, the other by the French, there was precious little difference in the horrifying experiences of the African slaves working the fields.
But one difference there was. Under the Black Code, freed slaves were given the same rights and privileges as all freeborn persons. In this narrow gap flourished a community of free men of color (either black or mixed race) in Sainte-Domingue. The son of a French aristocrat and black slave, the dark-skinned Dumas grew up in this gray zone created by French colonial rule and law. By the time his father brought him to France in 1776 — and was only then officially freed by him — the young Alexandre Dumas had not only learned the arts of fencing and horse riding, but also learned, because he had been denied them, the values of liberty and equality.
Alexandre Dumas could not have arrived at a more propitious moment. Endowed with a Herculean physique, now draped in a French military uniform, and a sharp intellect, polished in an enlightened lycée, Dumas was poised to ride the revolutionary events preparing to sweep across France. Of course, many others proved incapable or unwilling to surf these great waves, including King Louis XVI and his wife Marie-Antoinette. With the beheading of the king, the newly born French Republic found itself at war with the rest of Europe, galvanized by the ideological threat posed by the most powerful nation on the continent.
For those with the wit and will, the opportunities were boundless. Displaying great courage and skill on the battlefield, Dumas became a poster child for the revolution’s egalitarian and meritocratic ethos, leaping from the rank of private to general in a matter of months. As France fell under the baleful regard of Robespierre and the Terror, Dumas, given the command of the Army of the Alps, was told to come back victorious or come back on his shield. Not only was he victorious in the snow-swept summits, he won victories in the malarial bogs of northern Italy shortly after. Humiliated by Dumas’s tactics and tenacity, the Austrian soldiers referred to him as “the black devil.”
Napoleon Bonaparte came to think the same of Dumas. Depending on one’s perspective, Bonaparte either savaged or salvaged the French Revolution; Dumas, at least the one portrayed by his son Alexandre and by Reiss, believed the former, that Napoleon not only betrayed him personally, but the Revolution itself. The two men knew and distrusted one another: for Bonaparte, the mulatto general was too attached to the republican ideals of the revolution; for Dumas, the Corsican was too attached to his own imperial ambitions. This might well be true, but neither Dumas’s son nor biographer allows Bonaparte an iota of revolutionary idealism or Dumas a spot of personal ambition.
The mutual méfiance between the two men reached critical mass during the ill-conceived and ultimately catastrophic Egyptian campaign (a rehearsal, in terms of climatic extremes, poor logistics, and popular resistance, of the Russian campaign a decade later). Napoleon learned that Dumas had joined a conversation among several generals who were sickened, perhaps to the point of subordination, by the expedition’s cost in human lives and revolutionary ideals. When an informant told Napoleon about the meeting, he confronted Dumas. The two men, in a tense meeting in Napoleon’s quarters in Cairo, agreed that Dumas would return to France and his family. (When still an obscure sergeant, he had married Marie-Louise Labouret, the daughter of a minor official in northern France — a union, from all accounts, of deep and lasting love.)
Tragically, Dumas’s return was by way of a shoddy ship that sprung a multitude of holes once at sea and docked at Taranto, a port city belonging to the reactionary Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. For reasons of Byzantine complexity, the authorities arrested Dumas and tossed him into a cramped and cold cell. He lingered there for a year and a half, his health undermined by various efforts to poison him. Much like Edmond Dantès locked away in the Chateau d’If, Dumas was never told why he was imprisoned, nor did news of his imprisonment reach France.
When Dumas was finally released in the spring of 1801, his health was broken, as was the health of the Republic. Having transformed his Egyptian debacle into a trampoline to power, Napoleon reigned over France with near dictatorial powers. Dumas never again was given a military posting and was denied his military pension — no doubt the result of Napoleon’s hostility and the many bruised egos the blunt-spoken Dumas trailed behind him. He and his family lived in genteel poverty, and in 1806, two years after Napoleon had crowned himself emperor, Dumas died in obscurity.
At the outset of his book, Reiss announces his ambition: “to reconstruct the life of [this] forgotten hero,” and Dumas did live a hero’s life. Born in servitude on a far-flung French colony, he strode onto the stage of history as a swashbuckling general, unrivaled, people said, for his courage, intelligence, and decency. The child of a black slave and French nobleman, he embodied the spirit of the age, the conviction, trumpeted by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, that all men were born and remain free and equal in rights. Particularly now, as a racially diverse and increasingly fractured France struggles with its republican legacy, a look at the life and times of General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas is called for.
As Reiss notes, Dumas’s very famous son, Alexandre Dumas, père, answered a similar call, not just with his countless novels, which cannibalize moments and traits from his father’s life and character, but also his Memoirs. The novels are grand (and often grandiose) works of fiction, written with great verve (and frequent mounds of verbiage). Much the same can be said of the Memoirs — they are a great, they seem hastily written, and they are often fiction masquerading as history.
Dumas used the reminiscences of General Dumas’s companions, as well as a few documents, for the section of the Memoirs devoted to his father. Reiss admits the problematic nature of his sources, but he wants us to believe that the memories, written down by the age’s most romantic novelist a half-century after the events, are a valid primary source because they are “sincere.” But sincerity is not authenticity. One assumes Dumas was utterly sincere in adding a flourish to his father’s letter announcing his birth, boasting that the infant boy “peed way over his head — a good omen, I say!” — one of the fictive touches left unmentioned by Reiss.
Reiss, a professional journalist, gets bits and pieces of European history wrong. France did not “unleash the age of the Enlightenment” on the world; rather, the 17th-century English empiricists and Dutch rationalists did the grunt work of laying the foundations for this era. It is simply not true that in antiquity, slavery was the “fate of prisoners of war and barbarians, anyone not lucky enough to have been born Greek or Roman.” Instead, Greeks mostly enslaved other Greeks, as the helots of Sparta and artisans who built the Acropolis in Athens attest. Louis XVI’s signing of the Franco-American alliance in 1778 did not make him “with irony too delicious for anyone to mention the world’s prime sponsor of anti-monarchist insurgency and revolution.” At his meeting with the king, the American ambassador Benjamin Franklin made clear why irony, delicious or not, was not the attitude du jour: “If all monarchies were governed by the principles which are in your heart, Sire, republics would never be formed.” The cahiers de doléances, or grievance lists, that French villages, towns, and cities sent to Paris in 1789 did not, as Reiss claims, get “ordinary people involved in government” — to the contrary, most ordinary people found their words edited out by the influential bourgeois and aristocratic members who oversaw the process.
Such errors weigh less than other, more elusive problems with the historical canvas painted by Reiss. It is not that he gets the general history of the revolution and Napoleon wrong; it’s just that he does not get it right enough. Like the revolutionaries, Reiss seems to believe that 1789 marked a rupture with all that came before, but as Alexis de Tocqueville observed more than a century and a half ago, the revolution (and Napoleon) simply continued and completed a process of centralization begun under the Bourbons. He uses interchangeably “crowds” and “mobs” when describing the popular movement of 1789 — a terminological confusion George Rudé warned against several decades ago. And one need not be a defender of the indefensible Terror to take issue with Reiss’ description of Robespierre using the “excuse” of foreign and domestic threats to create the Committee of Public Safety. It was not an excuse, just as the mandate to protect “the Revolution from subversion” was not, in Reiss’ phrase, “ostensible.” Let’s say it was not just sincere, but also authentic.
There are, as well, stylistic issues. All too often, when Reiss turns a phrase, he turns it towards a cliché: eyes always gleam, havoc is inevitably wreaked, and the past ineluctably lies in misty foundations. His efforts to make the past present are often shallow or belittling: Voltaire was a “one man USO show,” the engineer Lazare Carnot is a “techie,” the Mameluke servant who passes weapons to his master is “like a golf caddy selecting his player’s clubs,” and the medieval city of Laon brings to mind a scene from the Lord of the Rings. (Reiss does not say if it’s the movie or book.) When a climactic scene calls for climactic language, as with the fiery end of the French warship L’Orient in Aboukir Bay, Reiss finds nothing better than “the biggest ship in the world exploded like a giant bomb.”
The biggest problem, though, is that this story frequently seems to be less about Dumas than Reiss. The book begins with the author overseeing the dynamiting of a safe in Villers-Cotterêts, the location of the Alexandre Dumas Museum, in order to reach documents he wants to believe are crucial. That the documents turn out to reveal little new information hardly matters; what counts is the author’s bravura. Like a television crew filming a documentary, we then follow Reiss to Egypt (where “all traces of the vast military operation had disappeared into the sands”) and to Taranto (where he comes up with little documentation, but does join a tour of a prison cell that perhaps resembled Dumas’s).
At the end of all these travels, Reiss returns with an account that, in its essentials, does not differ from John Gallaher’s 1997 monograph, General Alexandre Dumas: Soldier of the French Revolution. Reiss does list Gallaher’s book in his bibliography, as well as a recent biography by Claude Ribbe and a much older one by Ernest d’Hauterive. But he leaves the distinct impression that he has gone where no historian has gone before. Whereas Ribbe enters Reiss’ narrative as a faintly clownish character — Ribbe in fact did make a documentary in which, dressed in an 18th-century military outfit, he rode through Villers-Cotterêts on a white horse — Gallaher is entirely absent.
This is a pity for at least two reasons. First, Gallaher devotes several pages to a crucial encounter between Dumas and François Kellermann — crucial because Kellermann was Dumas’s commanding general in the Army of the Alps, crucial because Dumas was by turns insubordinate and boorish with Kellermann, so much so that Dumas was reassigned to Napoleon’s Army of Italy. It is difficult to imagine why Kellermann does not receive a single mention in Reiss’ book — whereas he gets an entire chapter in Gallaher’s — except that his inclusion would dent the largely hagiographic treatment Dumas receives in its pages.
Moreover, if Reiss is looking for delicious ironies, here are two: not only does Dumas’s pettiness lead to his fatal relationship with Napoleon, but Reiss does with Kellermann (and Gallaher) what Reiss accuses Napoleon of doing to Dumas: he airbrushes them from history. And it is instructive to look at the acknowledgements in both books: whereas Reiss’ runs seven pages and thanks an army of helpers rivaling in size the Egyptian expedition, Gallaher’s runs scarcely a page and, rather than publicists, agents, and handlers, thanks the same archives in which Reiss also found most of his material, as well as his university for travel funds.
At the end of his book, Reiss recounts a public ceremony in Paris where Ribbe, along with the city mayor (Bertrand Delanoë, who goes unnamed) and arrondissement mayor (Brigitte Kuster, who goes unmentioned), dedicate a statue of two massive and broken manacles to honor Dumas’s memory. He notes the "La Marseillaise" was played and speeches made, then laments that “everyone went home,” and there is still no statue of Dumas. I wonder what everyone should have done after the ceremony other than go home, just as I wonder if statues are all they are cracked up to be. Once erected, statues seem to turn invisible: an object on which pigeons roost above madly revolving cars, buses, and mopeds. At the end of the day, whether they are manacles or a bust, statues are raised to be forgotten. The past has no choice but to rely on writers and readers. Reiss offers a start, but we have yet to reach the end of Dumas’s story.
Robert Zaretsky is the history editor for LARB; his A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning will be published by Harvard in November.