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'The Black Count,' A Hero On The Field, And The Page
Originally published on Sat September 15, 2012 10:35 am
Gen. Thomas-Alexandre Dumas was one of the heroes of the French Revolution — but you won't find a statue of him in Paris today.
He led armies of thousands in triumph through treacherous territory, from the snows of the Alps to the sands of Egypt, and his true life stories inspired his son, Alexandre Dumas, to write The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers.
How did the son of a Haitian slave and a French nobleman become Napoleon's leading swordsman of the Revolution, then a prisoner, and finally almost forgotten — except in the stories of a son who was not even 4 years old when his father died?
"I like to think of him as history's ultimate underdog," says author Tom Reiss. His new book, The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, uncovers the real life that inspired so many fictional heroes.
"He's a black man, born into slavery, and then he rises higher than any black man rose in a white society before our own time," Reiss tells NPR's Scott Simon. "He became a four-star general and challenges Napoleon, and he did it all 200 years ago, at the height of slavery."
Dumas' exploits in battle can seem almost superheroic — taking the field against Austria in a squabble over Italy, he "formed what all of the eyewitnesses there called a 'one-man army,' deciding to drive the Austrians single-handedly out of the country," Reiss says. "He's offered 5,000 soldiers, and he doesn't want them because he likes leading small bands, so he decides that he can do better in this terrain by taking out a group of 20 dragoons."
Overwhelmed by 1,000 Austrian troops at a small, crucial bridge, Dumas didn't falter as his troops turned tail and fled. "He's just cutting them down with his saber, and he gets shot and he gets stabbed, but nothing will make him lie down," Reiss says. Reinforcements arrived eventually, but instead of retiring to the medical tent, Dumas "jumps on a horse and continues to chase the Austrians ... and after that, even Napoleon, who hated him, had to give him a huge credit in Paris."
Why did Napoleon hate one of his greatest military men? "Partly because he didn't like the fact that this 6-foot-plus, incredibly dashing and physically brilliant general was such a contrast to him in every way," Reiss says. "Also, he didn't like being confronted ... and Dumas was really someone who couldn't stop from speaking his mind."
That outspokenness landed Dumas in hot water during Napoleon's 1798 campaign in Egypt. He condemned the expedition as wasteful, unjust and against the principles of the French Revolution. "That confrontation, which was a public confrontation, was something that Napoleon could never forgive," Reiss says. On his way home from Egypt, Dumas was forced by a storm to put ashore in southern Italy, where he was taken prisoner by a shadowy Italian group called the Holy Faith Army, which hoped to ransom him to France. "But in fact, Napoleon basically uses this as an excuse to get rid of Dumas, and Dumas just languishes in this horrible dungeon."
The great general survived, but his health was broken by the ordeal — and he returned to France after two years in captivity to discover that Napoleon, the newly minted dictator, had rolled back civil rights protections across France and reinstituted slavery.
The elder Dumas died a few years later, in 1806. His son was just a toddler, but Reiss says his son had vivid memories of his father's death and wrote extensively about his life. "The novelist in fact takes a really beautiful sort of revenge" on Napoleon, he says. "He uses his father's life to create some of the most wonderful characters in literature."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
General Alex Dumas was one of the heroes of the French Revolution, but you won't find a statue of him in Paris today. He led armies of thousands in triumph through treacherous territory, from the snows of the Alps to the sands of Egypt. And his true life stories inspired his son, Alexandre Dumas, to write "The Count of Monte Cristo" and "The Three Musketeers."
So how did the son of a Haitian slave and a French nobleman become Napoleon's leading swordsman of the Revolution, but then a prisoner and finally almost forgotten except in the stories of a son who wasn't even 4 years old when his father died?
Tom Reiss, who wrote the previous best-selling "The Orientalist," has tried to revive Dumas for modern readers. His new book is "The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Real Count of Monte Cristo. Tom Reiss joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
TOM REISS: Thank you, Scott.
SIMON: Help us trace the rise of this remarkable man, Alex Dumas. The military that he joined was often a place for folks that didn't fit in traditional French society, and there were reasons why he didn't fit in.
REISS: Yes. Well, Alex Dumas, I like to think of him as history's ultimate underdog. He's a black man, born into slavery, and then he rises higher than any black man rose in a white society before our own time. He became a four-star general and challenges Napoleon, and he did it all 200 years ago, at the height of slavery. And then, if that's not enough, through his son, the novelist, he ends up inspiring these characters that we all know in world literature, "The Count of Monte Cristo" and "The Three Musketeers."
SIMON: To read about his exploits as a soldier it is absolutely like reading a super hero, except I guess this...
SIMON: ...actually happened. Give us some idea of what Dumas was like on a battlefield.
REISS: Well, one example is when France and Austria were fighting over Italy. And at one point, Dumas is overwhelmed by a thousand Austrian troops at this small bridge, a key bridge that the French have to hold. And the guys who were behind him, they basically...
REISS: ...they turned tail and run. But Dumas never does. So, Dumas just stands there on the bridge, as dozens of enemy attack him. And he's just cutting them down with his saber, and he gets shot and he gets stabbed, but nothing will make him lie down. And eventually, reinforcements arrive and Dumas then, instead of accepting medical care, he jumps on a horse and continues to chase the Austrians up towards the Brenner Pass.
And after that incident, even Napoleon, who hated him, had to give him a huge credit in Paris. And he invoked Dumas as the reincarnation of the ancient Roman hero, who had single-handedly held back the barbarian invasions.
SIMON: And why did Napoleon hate him?
REISS: I think Napoleon hated him partly because he didn't like the fact that this 6-foot-plus, incredibly dashing and physically brilliant general was such a contrast to him in every way. Napoleon, the brilliant strategist. So Napoleon didn't like being showed up. Also, he didn't like being confronted. He hated that and Dumas was really somebody who couldn't stop from speaking his mind.
And in 1798, Napoleon leads what they call the Expedition to Egypt, which is the French invasion of the Egypt. And he confronted Napoleon and said, essentially, I think this is an unjust and ill-considered, crazy venture. We're losing thousands of men to disease and what are we trying to do? Bring an empire to the Middle East? that's not why I joined the Revolution. I joined the Revolution to bring liberty, equality and fraternity to people.
And that confrontation, which was a public confrontation, was something that Napoleon could never forgive.
SIMON: How did General Dumas wind up in prison?
REISS: Eventually, General Dumas decides to leave Egypt and he gets on this kind of rickety ship. The ship almost sinks on the way across the Mediterranean. And they have put aground in the southern tip of Italy. And there, they're taken prisoner by this counter-revolutionary army called the Holy Faith Army. The Holy Faith Army takes Dumas, his fellow general and scientists who's with them. And they throw them into this horrible dungeon, and they think they're going to be able to ransom them to France for something valuable.
But in fact, Napoleon basically uses this as an excuse to get rid of Dumas, and Dumas just languishes in this horrible dungeon. But he's physically a very strong guy and he manages to survive this ordeal for more than two years. But when he gets out and he returns to France, he finds that Napoleon has become the dictator of France. And he's rolled back really all of the gains the Revolution has made, especially in terms of racial equality. So he reinstates slavery throughout the French empire and he imposes race laws on the French army that mean that black men are no longer allowed to be officers.
SIMON: How does a son who, to be fair, barely knew his father wind up being - or maybe this is the reason - winds up using the inspiration of his father to become perhaps the best known writer in the world of his time.
REISS: When I was a kid I read the memoirs of Alexandre Dumas, the novelist, and what's incredible about them is that he spends the first book of his memoir, the first 200 pages, just talking about the life of this incredible man who had been his father, and you're reading it and you think it must be an invention. But then at the end of it, he tells the story of the day his father died.
He describes meeting his mother on the stairs of their house and his mother is in tears and someone explains to little Alexandre who's barely 4 years old that he's not going to see his daddy again. And he says, why? And he says because God has taken him. And the mother in tears, sees little Alexandre on the stairs carrying this gun on his shoulder. His mother said, what are you doing with the gun?
And he said, I'm going upstairs to kill God for killing daddy. It's just something that always stuck with me. I mean, and the, of course, the novelist, in fact, takes a really beautiful sort of revenge. He uses his father's life to create some of the most wonderful characters in literature.
SIMON: Tom Reiss' new book is "The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Real Count of Monte Cristo." Thanks so much for being with us.
REISS: Thanks a lot, Scott. It was really great. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.