Winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. General Alex Dumas is a man almost unknown today, yet his story is strikingly familiar—because his son, the novelist Alexandre Dumas, used his larger-than-life feats as inspiration for such classics as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers.
...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.