Historian Reiss shares the backstory of his award-winning and fascinating biography, The Black Count—about the “real Count of Monte Cristo,” Gen. Alexander Dumas.
Writer Tom Reiss
Tavis: Many of us read “Count of Monte Cristo” and “The Three Musketeers” in high school, but few know that Alexander Dumas based those now-classic stories on a real-life hero: His father, Alexander Dumas Senior.
Born to an Afro-Caribbean mother, a slave in what is now Haiti, and a French father, the elder Dumas lived a life of danger and adventure worthy of any fictional character, including more than 50,000 troops of one of Napoleon’s most brilliant generals.
Writer Tom Reiss uncovers this fascinating story in a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography titled “The Black Count.” He joins us tonight from New York. First of all, Tom, congratulations, and we’re honored to have you on the program.
Tom Reiss: Thanks very much, Tavis. It’s great to be here.
Tavis: I want to start with a quote of yours from recently here. “I like to give people a whole new way of looking at the past. I love being able to go back and pull out the glory and fascination that’s everywhere in the planet, where the stories are buried,” close quote. Those are your words. Tell me more about those words in the context of the work on “The Black Count.”
Reiss: That is what I like to do in all of my works. I feel like history is about going and discovering the great human stories that just are every bit as relevant as anything that’s going on today.
The one challenge you have when you’re going back into history is that people, unlike with today’s news, we think we know what’s happened already, we think that it’s history, and therefore less interesting.
But in fact it’s my job to show you that we don’t really know what happened in the past, and that in fact it’s just as exciting as any breaking news story – in fact, often more so.
When I was a kid, one of the people who taught me how to do this was the writer Alexander Dumas, so it’s very appropriate that everything led me full-circle back to the story of his father.
Tavis: This is meticulously researched. Tell me how you found all the stuff that you found to bring this to life.
Reiss: As you know if you read the book, there’s a kind of unique story that I never could have – the kind of thing that you can’t make up that happened when I found in the middle of France, essentially, a locked safe that I had to get into.
I spent several months trying to figure out a way. Eventually I had to hire a safecracker and navigate a whole kind of town government to get the safecracker into a building and blow it open.
That was a fun story, but what was even more exciting was that inside that safe was the original manuscript upon which “The Count of Monte Cristo,” no less a novel, was based, and it was not a fiction manuscript. It was in fact the prison diaries of my subject, General Alex Dumas, who had been thrown into a dungeon during his journeys after he’d been sort of shipwrecked on his way back from Egypt.
He was thrown into this dungeon and half poisoned to death, and when he got out, he wrote down for his family of everything he’d undergone and endured. Incredibly, his son, years later, used this to write this novel that has meant so much to so many people – “The Count of Monte Cristo.”
So that was sort of the most dramatic document find, but I went all over the world trying to reconstruct the life of General Dumas, because he is one of these characters who had been really officially erased from history.
You said that he was one of Napoleon’s great generals. In fact, he was Napoleon’s great rival, and even though he eventually went to Egypt as the cavalry commander of the French forces in Egypt, there in the desert this young man from the tropics, who had already done incredible things on behalf of the French Revolution and on behalf of the French armies, he’d conquered the alps for France and done all these great things.
He clashed in the desert with Napoleon, who was at that time just one rank above him, but who already saw himself as the future dictator of France. General Dumas towered above Napoleon and said, “You’re leading the revolution to shame and degradation, and I’m not going to have a part about this, because my job is to liberate people. That’s why I signed on to this operation.”
Napoleon, the people who were becoming Napoleon’s generals realized that for him, it was not about spreading freedom and revolution; it was about creating a new empire with Napoleon the dictator or the emperor.
Tavis: How does a Black man end up becoming a general, much less being at one point one of Napoleon’s top generals, but to your point now, end up being a rival. Tell me more about the back story of how this guy ends up being in position to be a rival to Napoleon.
Reiss: Yeah, it’s just one of the most unlikely, incredible stories –
Reiss: – in history. General Dumas, okay, he doesn’t start a – he only becomes a general as a young man, but we’ve got to go back to he’s born in what would become Haiti, his mother is a slave, his father is this sort of French adventurer, kind of a rogue figure, and his own uncle is one of the main slave dealers in Haiti and actually deals slaves out of a little cove in the north of the island called Monte Cristo, and that’s where that name, “The Count of Monte Cristo,” came from.
Alex gets himself, after amazing adventures that we don’t really have time to get into with his father being a fugitive from justice and all kinds of things, the year is 1776, and Alex is 16 years old and his father smuggles him into France.
I found the ship’s record where he is arriving in the north of France and he’s listed in the shop cargo as the slave Alexander. Well, within a year, that slave Alexander has a new name and a new title.
He’s officially a count – he’s called Count Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie – and he’s being given the education of a French nobleman outside of Paris, because that rogue father we spoke of came into a huge fortune and he decides this is his favorite son.
He actually leaves the rest of his family back in Haiti. He’s not a nice guy, but he decides he’s going to bring this very talented Black son to France. He has to break a lot of laws to do it at the time, but Alex is getting this education as a swordsman, and remarkably, in Paris in the 1780s, his fencing teacher is another Black man whose father – sorry, whose mother was also a slave, and this man is actually the greatest fencer not only in France, but in the world.
He’s taken the name Chevalier de Saint-George, so you have these two Black men in Paris right before the French Revolution at the height of slavery, and in fact at the time when France has the world’s biggest slave empire.
Most of the money in France that’s coming in to build the palaces is coming in from slavery, and yet here are these two Black men in Paris basically sword fighting with each other.
The revolution breaks out; they form this group of swordsmen called the Black Legion. Alex Dumas is there at every moment, protecting the revolution and protecting France, and he rises to the equivalent of a four-star general.
No person of color is going to rise to that rank until basically Colin Powell in our own time. So just right there, the fact that that story is unknown, he rises higher than any Black man would rise in the west, and is celebrated during this amazing period of the French Revolution.
Not having to hide his color, but in fact it’s being celebrated. The French are incredibly proud that they have this person of color at the top of their revolution. But all of this shuts down, and that is the reason he actually was erased from history.
The French – actually, Napoleon is the guy who does it. When he comes back into power, France is essentially losing so much money from not being part of the slave trade and from having ended slavery and integrating their society, and also just a lot of people, as you might imagine that (unintelligible) for racism and for economic reasons.
It’s all rolled back. The figure of Dumas, he is just suppressed then for more than a hundred years. When they do finally create a single statue to him in Paris, the Nazis tear it down because they don’t like a statue of a Black man.
During World War II, it’s never been reconstructed after the war, and as you know, right now in France, very tense racial situation, and people of color in France definitely don’t feel like they have a lot of opportunities.
At the same time, you have this feeling in France that you’ve had throughout the 20th century and even a little before, that at the times of darkest racism in the United States, many Black artists and cultural figures felt very much at home in Paris.
Reiss: That was the city that they were drawn to. Right now, of course, the situation in France is really quite a mess in terms of that. Of course, I’m looking forward to my book, it’s going to be published in three months in France, and I’m going to be fascinated by the reaction. (Laughter)
Tavis: You will be fascinated and so will I, to see what the response will be.
Reiss: I don’t think it’s going to be a very temperate response. (Laughter) I think there’ll be a few raised voices.
Tavis: Well that’s precisely – I’m glad you mentioned then Colin Powell, because it is fascinating to consider what was happening then and to see what’s happening vis-à-vis race relations or the lack thereof in Paris, and more broadly, in France, even as we speak.
It is further fascinating to realize or to know that after all these years there still has not been a re-building, a reestablishing of a statue in honor of General Dumas.
But the story that was once hidden is now out thanks to Tom Reiss. The book is called “The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real count of Monte Cristo.” He is now the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for this text. Once again, Tom, congratulations, and good to have you on this program.
Reiss: Hey, thanks a million, Tavis. I appreciate it.
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