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The Black Count

New Yorker writer Tom Reiss gives us the rattling good tale of the real Count of Monte Cristo.

By David Holahan / November 21, 2012

The Black Count By Tom Reiss Crown Publishing 432 pp.

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Most of us will depart this vale of tears little noted beyond our immediate circle of friends and family. The obituary in the local paper will be paid for, and our headshots will not live on in Webster’s Dictionary. Within a few generations, all conscious connections to the living will vanish. How many of us can name our eight great-grandparents?

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Sometimes even quite remarkable people rapidly dissipate into the murk of eternity. In his second book, The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, Tom Reiss has resurrected one such lost soul, offering him up to us in all his swashbuckling relevance.

Alexandre Dumas would lead what can only be described as two fictional lives. The first was his own improbable saga: up from slavery in Haiti to the rank of general in the French Army, leading 50,000 men into battle and fighting alongside Napoleon in Italy and Egypt. Josephine and her husband were pledged to be godparents of his firstborn son. Dumas’ second incarnation was serving as the inspiration for the character Edmond Dantès in “The Count of Monte Cristo,” the adventure novel written by his son, the infinitely more famous Alexandre Dumas.

If there is a soupçon of difference in drama between the flesh-and-blood hero and the literary version, it is vanishingly slim. The real Count (his father was a Marquis) was born in 1762 in Jérémie, Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) to a down-and-out French nobleman on the lam and his slave mistress. His first 12 years were relatively carefree. Dumas roamed the countryside around his father’s modest farm in this backwater of Haiti, which Reiss described as “the mulatto capital of the Western world.” Mixed-race offspring could be freemen and society at the highest levels was quite diverse.

But when push came to shove, and his father needed cash to return to France to reclaim his estate, Dumas was sold – actually, pawned is more accurate – into slavery in Port-au-Prince. The father would reclaim him two years later (but not his three siblings, whom he also had sold into slavery). Once a teenager in France, Dumas was treated like a true son, and began an ambitious regimen of education in the literary and military arts. But he never forgave his father and took his name from his mother.

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