Ok, so I realized that some of you may consider my taste and judgement in biographies a bit suspect, but, in my defense, I had not yet read Stacy Schiff’s biography of Cleopatra when I recommended it to and it was selected by my mother’s book club. I did not yet know that its total lack of structural and narrative organization rendered it practically unreadable. I was simply basing my recommendation off the recommendation of one of my favorite teachers and teaching mentor who had told me it was unequivocally one of the best books he had ever read. (This is not to disparage his taste, though. All of his other recommendations to me were excellent.)
This time, it’s different. This time, I’ve actually read the book.
Meet Superman. The term was not actually coined by Neitzsche (in German, “übermensch”), argues author Tom Reiss, but by French novelist Alexandre Dumas in describing his father, General Alex Dumas, the subject of Reiss’ enthralling, Pulitzer Prize-winning (and deservedly so) biography, The Black Count. And, if practically all accounts of Gen. Dumas are correct, Superman he was. Whether it was single handedly holding off the Austrian army from taking a crucial bridge or taking Austria’s main fort in the Alps by scaling a sheer ice-covered cliff-face in crampons, putting down a Mameluke uprising in Cairo during Napoleon’s disastrous invasion or surviving being poisoned for almost two years in a Neapolitan prison, being completely and utterly devoted to his wife, children, and the ideals of the revolution or even grabbing a low-hanging bar and lifting his horse with his legs (ok, so that one is apocryphal), Gen. Alex Dumas was in every sense of the word a superman. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Reiss creates a sweeping, swashbuckling epic through the tale of Gen. Dumas that is as gripping as any classic adventure novel. Born in 1762 on the island of Saint Domingue (present day Haiti) to a self-exiled French aristocrat and a black slave mother, Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie grew up in a time of shifting racial norms and laws in the French colonial empire. Not much is known about his early life, so in the first act of the book, Reiss presents a detailed and fascinating picture of Caribbean society on Saint Domingue, France’s relationship with its most profitable sugar colony, and the shifting attitudes of the French people and their relationship with their own government at home. Reiss deftly takes what is known about Dumas’ early life and sets it within this context, showing how a gifted and intelligent athletic boy could leave the island a slave and enter France as a part of the aristocracy with his father. For at this time, as revolutionary ideas were picking up steam and the monarchy was losing favor in France, the French government was wrestling with how race fit into the cry for liberté, égalité, fraternité, ultimately making France (at least the mother country) the Western country with the most open attitudes and opportunities toward people of non-white races for a time. It was because of this that Thomas-Alexandre was able to become Alex Dumas (Dumas after his mother due to a falling out with his ne’er-do-well father) and rise, very quickly, in the French army, ultimately becoming the first black general in French history.
The focus on Dumas’ narrative picks up with his enlistment as a common soldier (despite his ability to enlist as an officer due to his aristocratic standing), his meeting and wooing of his eventual wife, Marie-Louise, and his meteoric rise through the French army ranks. It is in the army that he achieves such fantastic (though, for the most part, apparently accurate) feats, and Dumas’ bravery and ferocity on the battlefield, along with his fierce comittment to revolutionary ideals and kind treatment to all humanity, earns him both extreme respect of his fellow officers, soldiers, and the government and, later, the enmity of the new government under Napoleon.
Reiss’s organization and thoroughness is greatly appreciated by the reader. The amount of research that went into the book is evident, and Reiss liberally uses primary sources to bolster and, at times, tell the tale of Gen. Dumas. These sources include his own letters and dispatches, newspaper article, writings of others, and the at-times rose-colored but sweet and adoring memories of his beloved son, the novelist Alexandre Dumas. Reiss takes pains to humanize Gen. Dumas through these memories and through the general’s own, adoring letters to his wife, and he also beautifully shows the effect the novelist’s larger-than-life father had on him for the 4 short years the general lived after his birth. Much of Dumas the novelist’s writings have to do with his father’s experiences, both positive and negative, and righting the injustices committed against the elder Dumas due to his brash nature (which, unfortunately, invoked the personal wrath of Napoleon at a fairly early stage), revolutionary ideals, and, as racial equality fell out of favor with the rise of Napoleon, his race. In short, Edmond Dantes, the Count of Monte Cristo, is Alex Dumas. Reiss deftly weaves the story of France’s relationship with race and slavery in the late 18th century with the stories of the Dumas father and son in a way that shines light both on a particular man and how that man’s story is emblematic of the troubled history of the time.
I also want to take a moment to note Reiss’ style. He is immensely readable, and his prose shifts delicately and expertly from exciting to tender to detached professional as needed. Additionally, there is a sense of humor about his writing that is engaging and refreshing. I particularly enjoyed the glee running through his words as he recounted Napoleon’s anger at discovering the Egyptians, whose country he was attempting to take over, had automatically assumed that the massive, 6’2″ dark-skinned man who attacked with unequaled zeal and courage at the front of his white soldiers was the leader of the entire expedition, rather than Napoleon whom they thought was too short and skinny to be the leader. I also appreciated the use of first person in the book. Reiss takes small moments to discuss his research process, where he found a particular piece of information, what surprised him about this letter. Reiss engages and shares in their discovery by sharing his own discovery of the material and the general. And so I wanted to keep reading! I absolutely detest those academic articles or books that are full of esoteric, scholarly jargon. One of my biggest pet peeves in grad school was professors who would grade me down because I refused to write in that “approved” scholarly way. It is absolutely unnecessary and turns students and readers off from wanting to read the piece. Alternately, Reiss’s writing turns what could have been an exercise in academic-ese into an immensely readable, almost novelistic, account of sweeping romance, dark and dastardly intrigue, and unparalleled heroism. So thank you, Mr. Reiss, for showing that high quality, academic non-fiction writing can be engaging, interesting, and a joy to read.
So read it. Even if you don’t like non-fiction, read it. You won’t be sorry, especially my fellow 18th century lovers. And to those of you who may think it not scholarly enough, it won the 2012 biography Pulitzer, after all.