Monday, February 23, 2015

Based on a True Story

Try this story pitch: Illegitimate son of an aristocrat and slave returns to his father's native land to live the life of a privileged son until the surrounding revolutionary fervor convinces him to volunteer as a buck private -- who will rise to the rank of general by the time seven years have passed and be feared by his nation's enemies while lauded by its leaders. Then treachery on the part of jealous men results in his imprisonment and obscurity upon being freed.

Sound like a tough sell? It has the advantage of actually happening. Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie was born in 1762 in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, later known as Haiti. His father was Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie, a minor French nobleman who returned to France after a 30-year sojourn under the radar in Saint-Domingue accompanied by a tall, handsome and undeniably African young man who was later found to be his son by a woman named Marie-Cessette Dumas. Marie had been Alexandre's slave in Saint-Domingue, and although he claimed to have married her, he sold her and two children to another farmer before returning to France. For reasons of his own, when the young Thomas-Alexandre embarked on his military career, he began using only the second part of his first name and took his mother's surname, rising to fame and honor as Alexandre Dumas. He would name his third child and only son the same, and that young man grew to some fame himself as a novelist.

Prior to Tom Reiss's 2012 biography The Black Count, the historical record on General Dumas was spotty and relied heavily on the versions promoted by his son. The only trouble there was that the elder Dumas perished when the younger was only four, and most of the versions of events relayed by the son are significantly influenced by the kind of hero-worship a four-year-old boy maintains of his father. Reiss began with that information, adding in and correcting as he uncovered mentions of General Dumas in military correspondence of the time. He eventually located a cache of material about as well as by the General, which helped round out the personal details of his life.

General Dumas and other mixed-race persons like him were known in Revolutionary France as "Americans," given that most of them had a parent or at least a grandparent who was either a slave or African-descended freedman or freedwoman from France's New World colonies. Several such officers combined to serve in the "Free Legion of Mixed Americans," which earned approval and fame for its daring and risky operations and became known as The Black Legion, both in reference to its members and the fear and despair it inspired in its enemies. Reiss details how the French Revolution itself, in one of the few things it got right (my words and not his), eliminated some of the restrictive segregationist laws on its books. Given this move and Dumas' acumen as a military leader, it isn't surprising that he dedicated himself to fighting for the idea of republic-style government both in France and in neighboring countries. His courage on the battlefield, strategic genius and determination helped Republican France conquer territory in Italy where it set up new democratic governments.

But as Napoleon Bonaparte began to use the new government's own ambivalence and tendency to dither against it in order to gain and consolidate power, Dumas' dedication to the ideals of the Republic would prove a source of friction between them. Napoleon didn't move against Dumas directly, but when a shipwreck on the journey home from Egypt put Dumas in enemy hands, the rapidly-rising "First Consul" of France didn't do much to win his freedom, either. Dumas was imprisoned for two years, almost completely incommunicado -- as though he had vanished from the Earth. The novelist son would use the theme of unjust imprisonment to advance the fortunes of the unscrupulous as the theme for his 1844 novel The Count of Monte Cristo.

Reiss's research and determination uncovered an absolutely fascinating story of an absolutely fascinating man -- the highest-ranking officer of African descent in the military of any Western nation until Gen. Daniel James Jr. received his fourth star in the United States Air Force in 1975. His writing style is a little breezier than most biographies and includes probably a little more room than necessary for his own little asides. But his thorough explanation of the life and economics of French colonial Haiti, racial politics and cultural feelings in France leading up to the Revolution of 1789 and of the wastrel role played by General Dumas' father more than makes up for this minor quibble.

Reiss justifiably won the 2013 Pulitzer Price for Biography or Autobiography, and as of late 2014, The Black Count was in development as a movie. He successfully manages to make his subject, General Alexandre Dumas, both the larger-than-life hero he became in the pages of his son's novels and the real man he was. The Black Count is worthy of the effort Reiss put into it and worth the time to take a few afternoons and read it.

Whether you like swashbuckling adventurers or not.

1 comment:

fillyjonk said...

Oh, that book sounds cool! I'll have to look it up. I like historical novels, but have to be very choosy because the ones that feel like total fakeries bug me and the ones with tons of goopy (or "nasty") romantic detail annoy me.