The Black Count
New Yorker writer Tom Reiss gives us the rattling good tale of the real Count of Monte Cristo.
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Reiss has written a remarkable and almost compulsively researched account of a man who played a critical, if largely overlooked, role in the French Revolution. The author, who also has been published in The New Yorker and The New York Times, spent a decade on the case, and it shows. The reader gets to know not only Dumas in all his glory but also colonial Haiti, revolutionary France, feudal Italy, and barely medieval Egypt in the bargain. Reiss toured the dungeon where Dumas languished. He spent two years questing after a statue of the hero that once graced the Place Malesherbes in Paris (the Nazis, it turns out, melted it down during World War II). He visited the Musée Alexandre Dumas in Villers-Cotterêts, France (devoted primarily to Dumas the novelist), where he engaged a safecracker to open a long-neglected cache of the General’s letters.Skip to next paragraph
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The context of Dumas’ phenomenal career path is painted in rich detail. Despite being financially dependent on an extensive West Indian slave empire (Haiti was the richest colony in the world during the second half of the 18th century), France took the lead in proclaiming human rights, well ahead of Great Britain and the United States. Slavery throughout the empire was abolished in 1794, and people of color in France enjoyed full rights of citizenship, at least for a time.
Napoleon’s rise to power would reverse this truly revolutionary trend, and Dumas would be swept up in the avalanche of racial backsliding. The Black Count’s commanding presence alone, never mind his accomplishments, were a living rebuke to the prevailing racial theories of that and later times. Seeing the tall and confident Dumas standing next to the diminutive Napoleon, Egyptians assumed the former was the leader of the French forces. This didn’t bode well for the subordinate’s career. When his next son was born, Dumas looked elsewhere for godparents.
If nitpicking such a diligent and engaging effort must be made, it is that the context sometimes is a bit too much, distracting from the narrative here and there, noteworthy perhaps only because the reader wants to get back to the rattling good tale. The political machinations of southern Italy circa 1800 are dizzying. There are also points of omission which are not explained (and which may have a perfectly obvious explanation): what, for example, were young Dumas’ two years of non-familial slavery like in Haiti? If Reiss knows, he doesn’t let on; if no documentation exists for this critical period, the reader needs to know.
Otherwise, delve in. The Black Count is no longer languishing in the shrouded corners of fickle history.
David Holahan is a regular contributor to the Monitor's Books section.