A running theme of this book is the unexpected power of bureaucracy and legal loopholes in a world otherwise ruled by brute force, and Saint-Domingue offers a prime example. In order to contain the consequences of “an environment that the colonists themselves frequently characterized as being awash in sensuality, temptation, and illicit alliances,” the government in Paris had codified black slavery — but also decreed that if an owner married a slave, she and her children would be “rendered free and legitimate.” The result was a surreal era of wealth and freedom — especially for mixed-race women — alongside the “charnel house” of the plantations. The child originally known as Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie spent his first 12 years in that world, until the death of his father’s two brothers sent the errant marquis back to France to reclaim his title. Once there, having sold his family into slavery to pay for his passage, he sent for his son — transforming him overnight from a captive into a count.
This was the first of Alex Dumas’s many transformations, reflecting the tumultuous world into which he stepped. Revolution, still a philosophical dream, was a decade away; in the meantime, the teenager mastered all the intellectual and athletic skills expected of a young white nobleman. After several years of decadent living in Paris, Thomas-Alexandre transformed himself again, this time deliberately, by enlisting in the Queen’s Dragoons as a private. Reiss skillfully draws out the story from archival scraps and reads in his subject’s enlistment as “Dumas, Alexandre . . . son of . . . Cecette Dumas” a statement of “poetic revenge,” rejecting his father’s title and declaring himself the son of his black mother. Under ordinary circumstances, an enlisted private could have risen no higher than sergeant-major; the 1780s in France were not, however, ordinary circumstances.
Reiss presents the coming of revolution as a whirlwind of idealism, confusion and raw need. Conspiracy theories thrived where harvests failed, and radical political ideas became reality on the back of desperate food shortages. Dumas was swept up in revolutionary ardor, as even the abolition of slavery became a real possibility. In the small town of Villers-Cotterets, he was billeted with a fervently republican innkeeper, and hints of Othello’s wooing of Desdemona appear in the way Reiss describes his impact: “Here was a young man with breeding, bearing, intelligence, and a life of unbounded romance and exoticism. The entire family was beguiled.” Most besotted of all was the innkeeper’s daughter Marie-Louise, who was to be Dumas’s loyal wife; her father required only that the couple wait until Dumas had been promoted to sergeant. In the space of a year, he had become a general.
Perhaps because he was living proof that no status was stable, Dumas survived the Terror of the early 1790s with his neck and his principles intact — according to his son, deliberately turning his back on public executions: “When the terrible hour arrived, and all other windows were filled with spectators, my father would close his, pull down the blinds and draw his curtains.” At such moments, Dumas appears almost superhuman in his moral integrity and courage; it’s almost a relief to read that, like Achilles, he also suffered bouts of rage.
Dumas’s military career is why he enters the history books at all, yet the gulf between his commitment to his command and the futility of his battles makes these accounts hard to read. He is more human when he’s on the way down and a short, paranoid artillery captain named Napoleon Bonaparte is on the rise. Among Napoleon’s many underhanded deals, most of them devastating to his rival Dumas, is one with the white planters that opens the door to the reintroduction of slavery and the end of a brief dream of racial equality in France.
The biography is bookended by meditations on remembering and record-keeping. In the novels of Alexandre Dumas, the worst crime is to forget; Reiss details the criminal forgetting of Alex Dumas, which results in Reiss’s having to hire a safecracker to access the general’s private papers. Since a statue to Dumas was melted down by the Nazis, a new monument recently appeared in Paris: an enormous pair of slave shackles, which honor him as a symbol, not as a man. This remarkable book stands instead as his monument.
, an associate editor of the PEN America journal, teaches writing at New York University’s Gallatin School.