It started with one of those real-life-being-more-poignant-than-fiction openings, which, ironically, is the death of the main character. When told that his father has died, a 4-year-old boy asks where the father has gone. When the grown-ups respond that God has taken the father up to heaven, the son squares his shoulders and marches off toward his father’s gun closet. The boy grabs a rifle as tall as he is and walks down the stairs. As he heads out the door, he is intercepted by his mother. Asked where he is going, the boy responds that he is going to heaven to kill God so that he can get his father back.
It’s a moving opening, enough to guarantee a compelling biography. But what’s more, this particular boy grew up to be one of the most famous and influential novelists of all time. Oh, and his father was a brilliant four-star general of Olympic proportions, who rose up from slavery to face down Napoleon. Yeah.
For the rest of his life, the boy would search for his father’s legacy, compiling a massive if flawed collection of documents. “The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo,” by journalist Tom Reiss, finally completes the son’s mission. It is the true tale of Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, who, awesomely, went by the casual Alex. He is the father of the novelist Alexandre Dumas pére and grandfather of the playwright Alexandre Dumas fils. Alex (I could call him Dumas, but I think I’m going to stick with Alex) was the son of a disgraced French nobleman and his black slave, born on the French sugar colony of Saint Domingue (now Haiti) in 1762. Conceived while his father was in exile, Alex was sold into slavery when he was fourteen so that his father could raise funds to return to France. Eventually, Alex was bought back by his father and sent to school in Paris (though his siblings remained in slavery).
In France, Alex received a classical education and entered the French military, adopting his mother’s surname so that he could enlist at a lower rank than that guaranteed by his father’s title, and thus prove his worth on his own. Alex was quickly renowned throughout the army for his supposedly superhuman strength and physique. In a tale that just has to be apocryphal, Alex was riding a horse indoors when he grabbed onto the rafters and lifted himself and the steed up bodily. Alex soon joined an interracial group of swordsmen, called the Free Legion of the Americans. An American, of black and white blood mixed in the Caribbean, Alex won praise for his verve in the French Revolution. In one operation, he led a group of men up cliffs of ice to conquer a supposedly impregnable Austrian fort.
At the age of 32, Alex was promoted to General-in-Chief of the Army of the Alps, commanding more than 50,000 men. This would be the highest rank achieved by a black soldier until Colin Powell came around in 1989. From there, Alex’s career was the mirror image of that of another rising French star, Napoleon Bonaparte. As Napoleon gained power, he set his sights on an ill-planned mission to scorching Egypt, and Alex went with him. Alex made the mistake of publicly confronting Napoleon about the viability of the mission, and his career spiraled downward. Leaving for France in shame, Alex was captured by rogue allies and held in prison for two years. When he finally returned to France, he quickly died a broken man.
Alex is a figure so remarkable he seems almost supernatural. He is literally unbeatable in hand-to-hand combat, triumphing over multiple opponents at once and killing scores of enemies on the battlefield. He is principled, forbidding his men the traditional prize of raping and pillaging. And he is lucky, being spared execution at the hands of the corrupt Committee of Public Safety only because Robespierre is conveniently toppled.
But, inexplicably, Alex is forgotten.
Reiss accounts for Alex’s omission from popular history by explaining that Napoleon systematically purged Alex’s legacy after his rival’s death, taking personal credit for many of Alex’s accomplishments. But I suspect the reason is more complicated than that. Alex, once a slave, came of age at just the right time, when Europe’s earliest Civil Rights battles were being waged in French courts. Alex certainly faced discrimination, but he was able to receive a first-rate education and rise in the ranks of the army based on the content of his character, not the color of his skin. By the time of Alex’s death, and certainly afterward, life was not the same for blacks in France. A black insurrection had humiliated Napoleon’s forces in Haiti, and many past legal civil rights victories were forgotten. Alex has been neglected because history has been intentionally whitewashed.
This makes Reiss’s biography all the more remarkable. Drawing on the literature of Dumas pére (Alex was the inspiration for the Count of Monte Cristo, among other famous characters) and never-before-seen archival documents, Reiss has traced this epic story across three continents over ten years. He shows how a national hero and international celebrity has been lost. He traces a son’s attempts to find and resurrect his father through literature. He indicts a country that has forgotten one of its true heroes.