If there is a soupçon of difference in drama between the flesh-and-blood hero and the literary version, it is vanishingly slim. The real Count (his father was a Marquis) was born in 1762 in Jérémie, Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) to a down-and-out French nobleman on the lam and his slave mistress. His first 12 years were relatively carefree. Dumas roamed the countryside around his father’s modest farm in this backwater of Haiti, which Reiss described as “the mulatto capital of the Western world.” Mixed-race offspring could be freemen and society at the highest levels was quite diverse.
But when push came to shove, and his father needed cash to return to France to reclaim his estate, Dumas was sold – actually, pawned is more accurate – into slavery in Port-au-Prince. The father would reclaim him two years later (but not his three siblings, whom he also had sold into slavery). Once a teenager in France, Dumas was treated like a true son, and began an ambitious regimen of education in the literary and military arts. But he never forgave his father and took his name from his mother.
Reiss has written a remarkable and almost compulsively researched account of a man who played a critical, if largely overlooked, role in the French Revolution. The author, who also has been published in The New Yorker and The New York Times, spent a decade on the case, and it shows. The reader gets to know not only Dumas in all his glory but also colonial Haiti, revolutionary France, feudal Italy, and barely medieval Egypt in the bargain. Reiss toured the dungeon where Dumas languished. He spent two years questing after a statue of the hero that once graced the Place Malesherbes in Paris (the Nazis, it turns out, melted it down during World War II). He visited the Musée Alexandre Dumas in Villers-Cotterêts, France (devoted primarily to Dumas the novelist), where he engaged a safecracker to open a long-neglected cache of the General’s letters.