...a richly imaginative biography ... Despite Reiss’s extensive research, the count remains a somewhat remote figure, since his contemporaries usually described him in conventional superlatives ... Reiss’s narrative of the campaign is especially spirited, and along the way he treats us to a wealth of incidental information, for instance about the Mameluke warriors who came to Egypt from the Caucasus and bequeathed pale skin and blue eyes to some Egyptian families ... That Alexandre was a figure of vast appetite and incredible energy, but thanks to Reiss we now know that Dumas grandpère was even more interesting.
In The Black Count, Reiss does his best to train a skeptical historian’s eye on the Dumas legend, but he often appears equally dazzled by his extraordinary subject ... 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 ... 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 ... This remarkable book stands instead as his monument.
Reiss in turn emphasizes that Dumas’s novels were fueled by his father’s own experiences in earlier wars. These experiences, we discover, were as remarkable and romantic as the man who related them to his son. They also allow Reiss — though with less literary panache than Dumas and, at times, an equally cavalier treatment of history — to introduce us to the world that, come 1789, replaced the Old Regime ... Reiss, a professional journalist, gets bits and pieces of European history wrong ... Such errors weigh less than other, more elusive problems with the historical canvas painted by Reiss. It is not that he gets the general history of the revolution and Napoleon wrong; it’s just that he does not get it right enough ... All too often, when Reiss turns a phrase, he turns it towards a cliché ... The biggest problem, though, is that this story frequently seems to be less about Dumas than Reiss ... At the end of all these travels, Reiss returns with an account that, in its essentials, does not differ from John Gallaher’s 1997 monograph, General Alexandre Dumas: Soldier of the French Revolution ... The past has no choice but to rely on writers and readers. Reiss offers a start, but we have yet to reach the end of Dumas’s story.
Tom Reiss in The Black Count has given a clear account of the origins of the Dumas dynasty, including detailed work on the French sugar empire in Saint-Domingue—the most lucrative of European colonies in the Caribbean. Reiss traces complex patterns of racial mixture on the island—the separate castes formed by slaves, free blacks, mulattos, and whites—that would be made even more volatile with the coming of the French Revolution and the abolition of slavery by act of the Convention in 1794 ... Reiss, whose research seems to have involved cracking a safe with the cooperation of the deputy mayor of Villers- Cotterêts to get at Dumas family documents, is so taken with the background he painstakingly assembles that the reader tends to get a bit lost in the welter of detail. When he gets to the events of his central story, things become plain enough. We are in the swashbuckling world that Alex’s son would draw on for his fiction.
Reiss convincingly argues the obvious—that the story of General Alex Dumas is the story underlying his son’s better-remembered lifetime of work. The General proved a key inspiration for D’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers and the betrayed but resilient Edmond Dantès in The Count of Monte Cristo ... Reiss reconstructed the general’s life through persistent historical detective work—including, he says, a bit of after-hours safecracking in search of old letters, this done with the tacit assistance of a sympathetic French functionary ... We find much black history, in particular, forgotten this way—hidden in plain sight. Thankfully, more and more historians like Reiss in recent decades have begun to dig down into that obscurity ... this story of The Black Count stands out. Through persistent, skillful efforts as a historian and sleuth, Reiss has produced a gripping account of General Alex Dumas.
If there is a soupçon of difference in drama between the flesh-and-blood hero and the literary version, it is vanishingly slim ... 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 context of Dumas’ phenomenal career path is painted in rich detail ... If nitpicking such a diligent and engaging effort must be made, it is that the context sometimes is a bit too much, distracting from the narrative here and there, noteworthy perhaps only because the reader wants to get back to the rattling good tale ... The Black Count is no longer languishing in the shrouded corners of fickle history.
...engagingly written — if somewhat overblown ... he is a gifted literary scavenger who specializes in digging up neglected or forgotten minor historical figures and then reintroducing them to contemporary readers. The travel and field research leading up to his books become a sometimes entertaining, sometimes distracting subplot, stretching what might have been an absorbing, factual feature article into a rather rambling book in which the occasional fresh fact is surrounded by conjectures ... Further padding takes the form of entertaining but marginally relevant footnotes that add nothing to the core narrative but give the author a chance to show off his trivia collection ... Nor is The Black Count helped by the blatantly inflated claims made by the author about his hero ... He deserves to be remembered for what he was, not as the mythical figure that his son fantasized and Mr. Reiss has passed on to us in inflated form.
Historian Tom Reiss went to France specifically to uncover the papers and tell the story of this forgotten Dumas, the titular Black Count of Reiss' fascinating new book ... While Alex Dumas is an unquestionably fascinating figure, parts of the book read like an extended fan letter rather than objective, analytical work. It occasionally borders on the hyperbolic, akin to an American's idol worship of George Washington as a man who never lied and single-handedly won the American Revolution ... Throughout the book, Reiss argues that Alex Dumas is an important, criminally neglected historical figure quite apart from his relationship to his famous offspring. Despite Reiss' sometimes overblown regard, it's difficult to argue with him. That a former slave could rise on his merits so far, so fast some seven decades before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation is a truly amazing story, one that needs no literary embellishment.
Thanks to Reiss’s excellent research, combined with the passionate memorial his son, Alexandre Dumas, consistently built in his own novels and memoir, Dumas’s life has been brought back to light ... Reiss capitalizes on his subject’s charged personality as well as the revolutionary times in which he lived to create an exciting narrative.
A compelling new work by literary detective Reiss ... Using records from Gen. Dumas’ final residence and the military archives at the Chateau de Vincennes, the author provides a vivid sense of who Dumas was and how he attained such heights and fell so low after the French Revolution, being nearly forgotten by the time of his death in 1806. The simple answer seems to be racism ... A rarefied, intimate literary study delineating a roiling revolutionary era.