Tag Archives: Pulitzer Prize

First Monday Book Day: The First Musketeer

Going to an airport with only a few pages left on your book is a rookie mistake. Which I'm happy to have made recently. The Boy and I were flying back from the ABQ via Lost Wages, laying over for a couple hours. So I wandered into the book store and found this inviting biography of Alex Dumas, swashbuckling father of the famous novelist.

Tom Reiss's biography garnered him the 2013 Pulitzer. It's certainly a good read so far (~150 pages in). Dumas, the son of a ne'er-do-well French nobleman, the Marquis Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie and a black slave woman, Marie-Cessette Dumas, in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (later Haiti). Davy had been sponging off his younger brother, Charles, until they had a falling out in 1748. Antoine disappeared into the wilderness with three slaves and lost all contact with his family for 30 years. Charles eventually returned to France to take over the family estate, under the presumption that Antoine had died. In 1773, both Charles and their youngest brother, Louis, died. Somehow, word of this got back to Antoine, who then apparently sold Marie-Cessette and Alex's two siblings, but took Alex with him back to France to claim the estate in 1776.

France was an odd place in the late 18th century, both racist and progressive. Alex was raised as the legitimized son of Antoine, thus earning a title of "Count" as the son of a Marquis. He ws trained as a gentleman and swordsman at the academy of Nicolas Texier de la Boëssière, learning his swordcraft from the most famous swordsman of the day, the Chevalier de Saint-George, who also happened to be a mixed-race black man from the Caribbean. But Alex, as a care-free knockabout (taking after the old man), eventually clashed with his father over money (he was spending it fast, while his old man was going broke of his own accord), and, in a huff, ran off to join the army.

Rather than pressing his case as the more-or-less legitimized son of a nobleman, and thus receiving a commission, Alex joined up as a mere enlistee under his mother's name, Dumas, in 1786, only 13 days before his newly re-married father kicked off. The old man had sold the estate and squandered the fortune, so there was only an empty title to be had anyway. Alex entered service with the Queen's Dragoons and was posted off in a provincial town, where, as luck would have it, he boarded with the family of a local inn-keeper and rising Republican. Dumas became engaged to the innkeeper's daughter and went off to serve the emerging Republic. He quickly rose through the ranks and in October 1792 accepted a commission as the second-in-command of the "Black Legion." In July 1793, he was appointed brigadier general in the Army of the North and, by September was commander-in-chief of the Army of the Western Pyrenees. These were exciting times, with French generals being denounced and executed left and right. But eventually he would win the (guarded) respect of Napoleon and be appointed commander of the cavalry for Napoleon's campaign in Egypt.

I've got a long ways to go in this book. It has some flaws -- fundamentally misinterpreting Rousseau's famous opening words from The Social Contract ("Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.") as fundamentally a commentary on slavery in the age when that quote really has almost nothing to do with the institution of slavery at all. But Reiss is an entertaining storyteller and the book is a wonderful introduction to the history of the French Caribbean, pre-revolutionary France and, of course, the Revolution, the Terror, and the rise of Napoleon. Dumas was fated to have a tragic ending -- dumped by Napoleon in Egypt, imprisoned in Taranto and all but forgotten for two years before being freed, a broken man.

Dumas' imprisonment provided much of the inspiration for his son's famed novels, such as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. This book helps bring the historical Dumas back into clearer focus. The book may not reach the majesty of a Robert K. Massie or the scholarly qualities of the Roommate, but I highly recommend it as a fun and informative read.

What are you reading?