French author Alexandre Dumas was born on July 24, 1802. (He’s often referred to as Alexandre Dumas père (father) to differentiate him from his illegitimate son, also a writer, Alexandre Dumas fils (son). He had several other “natural” children, as the French say.) His real name, however is even more complicated: Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie. As always, the ‘de’ refers to landed nobility, but the family had fallen on very hard times when Dumas was born. Both his father and grandfather were named Alexandre and had been generals in the former French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) and Dumas was raised on stories of their exploits. His pride in them led him to adopt the same first name when he was an adult. His mother could not afford to educate her son, so he read everything he could get his hands on in order to educate himself.
The immensely prolific Dumas specialized in historical fiction. His most famous books are Les Trois Mousquetaires (The Three Musketeers), Le Comte de Monte-Cristo, and The Man in the Iron Mask. Frankly, he was far more prolific than any one man really could be. Dumas collaborated with other writers (known as “nègres” in French – it sounds really awkward to English speakers, but it doesn’t have a pejorative meaning in French), most notably Auguste Maquet. Their sometimes tense relationship was the subject of a recent film. Basically, Dumas was the idea man and his collaborators did the majority of the actual writing, but received no credit.
The literary term nègre may not have racist connotations, but Dumas was often on the receiving-end of slurs because of his mixed heritage. His grandmother was a Créole and his grandfather was black, in fact, he was the first black general in the French army. One of Dumas’ retorts to comments about his heritage was, “My father was a mulatto, my grandfather was a Negro, and my great-grandfather was a monkey. You see, sir: my family begins where yours ends.”
As a young man, Dumas set off for Paris with a few coins in his pocket to try to make his fortune. There, he fell under the charms of the national theatre company, la Comédie-Française, and tried his hand at writing some dramas of his own. Following their huge success, he turned to romans-feuilletons (romahn foyton), or novels published in installments (a feuille is a leaf, so it’s like a novel made up of pile of leaves. Today, a feuilleton is a soap opera.)
Dumas made so much money that he built the beautiful château de Monte-Cristo, after one of his most famous characters. He lost all his wealth, including the château, when his own theatre went belly-up. He became an economic refugee in Belgium. Dumas was also politically active, unsuccessfully opposing Napoleon III, along with his fellow-writer Victor Hugo. Once Dumas was wealthy again, he sold everything to buy weapons for Garibaldi’s army in Italy and served in his government for a time.
Dumas died on December 5, 1870. In 2002, the 200th anniversary of his birth, his remains were transferred to the Panthéon in Paris, the final resting place of French notables.
- Review of The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (thebookstop.wordpress.com)