Post link 12 January 2015, 1:24
by HENRY LOUIS GATES JR. Posted- June 9 2014 7-52 AM

Amazing Facts About the Negro.
"D'Artagnan, Athos, Aramis and Porthos"
Image by Maurice Leloir, 1894

When I was a teenager falling in love with books, had anyone told me that three of the most beloved characters in world literature, The Three Musketeers, had sprung from the pen of a black man, I would have said, Get out of town. And when I heard rumors about the author’s ancestry in college, I wondered whether it was more legend than fact, akin to the myth that Beethoven was black. It turns out that this happens to be true: Alexandre Dumas was both a Frenchman and a black man, and retelling his story reinforces the more important point that imagination should not be shackled by skin color.

Recall, earlier in this series we read about Napoleon’s “Black Devil,” Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, the black man born to a French nobleman and a slave who ascended to the highest ranks of the French military during that country’s revolution only to end up in an Italian dungeon and a poor man’s grave. I mentioned then that Gen. Dumas would have the last laugh, thanks to his son, Alexandre Dumas père (meaning “father,” sort of like “senior” in English to distinguish from a “junior” of the same name). And that son would become one of the most influential writers in history.

Dumas’ most popular works, The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, have engrossed readers and actors for years. Yet many literary historians simply chose to erase his racial origins, leaving most readers, until recently, to assume the default: that the author of those works had to be white in order to write so vividly about white people, even though his race was anything but a secret during his own lifetime. In fact, when I mention Dumas and Russian writer Alexander Pushkin in the introductory lecture to a course I teach at Harvard University with Lawrence Bobo, our students appear shocked to learn that both had black ancestry.

Early Years

Alexandre Dumas père was born in Villers-Cotterêts, France, on July 24, 1802, to parents Thomas-Alexandre Dumas and Marie-Louise Laboruet. He was one-quarter black, as Richard Stowe, author of the 1976 biography Alexandre Dumas père, recounts. Dumas’ godfather was supposed to have been Napoleon Bonaparte, but, as Dumas told it, the arrangement was dropped after his father and the future French emperor became enemies. Gen. Dumas died in 1806, yet through his absence, he loomed even larger in his son’s mind. “I adored my father,” Dumas is quoted as saying in Tom Reiss’ 2012 book The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo. “Perhaps, at so early an age, the feeling which today I call love was only a naïve astonishment at that Herculean stature and that gigantic strength I’d seen him display on so many occasions; perhaps it was nothing more than a childish pride and admiration. … But, in spite of all that, even today the memory of my father, in every detail of his body, in every feature of his face, is as present to me as if I had lost him yesterday.”

The general’s death hurt in other ways, for despite his high military rank, his pension was withheld. Dumas, growing up in poverty, also was convinced that the vengeful Napoleon had blocked his admission to any military school or civilian college, according to Reiss.
Alexander Dumas père (1802-1870)

The Beginnings of a Literary Career

Dumas’ mother, a widow and single parent, “exercised little authority over [her son], rearing him with abundant affection but almost in spite of herself letting him do whatever he wished,” Stowe writes, so that “Dumas at seventeen or eighteen was as learned in the ways of the woods as he was little schooled.” The seeds of Dumas’ literary ambitions were planted around age 16, when he met Adolphe de Leuven, the teenage son of a Swedish nobleman, on vacation in Villers-Cotterêts. Dumas, whose résumé at that point was still thin, as a notary’s apprentice, was captivated by de Leuven’s tales of Parisian life.

As Dumas recounted in My Memoirs, translated and edited by A. Craig Bell: “How many times did I stop him as he casually spoke of this actor or actress and that. … And he good-naturedly held forth upon the genius and talent and good fellowship of those eminent artistes, playing upon the unknown notes of the keyboard of my imagination, causing ambitious and sonorous chords to vibrate within me that had hitherto lain dormant, the possession of which astonished me greatly when I began to realize their existence.”

Soon, de Leuven and Dumas began collaborating on comedic plays, and two years after Dumas moved to Paris, they achieved a modicum of success with 1825’s La Chasse et l’Amour (Hunting and Love). Dumas greatly expanded his network of mentors in Paris. For instance, while working as a copyist for the duke of Orleans, Dumas met E.H. Lassagne, who encouraged him to pursue his education and writing. And, as a guest at the literary salon of French writer Charles Nodier, Dumas rubbed elbows with Alfred de Vigny, Victor Hugo and Alphonse de Lamartine. Nodier, in particular, supported Dumas’ forays into writing more serious works, including the historical tragedy Christine.

A Successful Playwright

The year 1829 saw the debut of Dumas’ hit play Henri III et Sa Cour (Henry III and His Court) at the Comédie-Francaise Theater in Paris. “What it lacked in subtlety it more than made up for in excitement and movement,” Stowe writes. Peter E. Carr, assessing the play’s importance in the Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895, says it was “the first French drama of the romantic movement.”

Its success enabled Dumas to continue writing plays, and he staged them at a breakneck pace. “Between 1829 and the end of 1851,” Stowe writes, “only one year—1844—saw no new play by [Dumas] on some Parisian stage. Several years saw four or five produced, and in April of 1839 he actually achieved three premieres within fifteen days.” I know prominent writers who tweet less frequently than that! As a result, Dumas’ audience ballooned, and as Jonathan Edwards writes in Africana, “although some elite writers could fault his literary style, they envied his popularity.” Davy de la Pailleterie (25 March 1762 – 26 February 1806) was a general in Revolutionary France and the highest-ranking person of color of all time in a European army. Wikipedia

One of Dumas’ better-received plays was 1831’s Antony, which, he claimed with characteristic bombast, was “not a drama, Antony is not a tragedy, Antony is not a play. Antony is an episode of love, of jealousy, of anger, in five acts.” Dumas had written—and lived—those acts, as the play was inspired by his love affair with writer Mélanie Waldor. The play, Stowe writes, “represented a new theatrical genre—in this case the drame moderne,” even though the censors kept it off the stage from 1834 to 1867. Of all of Dumas’ plays, his most popular was Le Tour de Nesle (The Tower of Nesle), which, premiering in 1832, enjoyed a staggering run of nearly 800 consecutive performances.

A Successful Novelist

Beginning in 1837, Dumas turned his attention to writing novels. There were practical reasons: His plays had begun to falter at the box office, and a lively market was developing for serial novels, whose authors were becoming wealthy and famous (think Charles Dickens and Oliver Twist). Tracking Dumas’ works, Stowe writes that “Le Chevalier d’Harmental (1842), his first novel done in collaboration with Auguste Maquet, established Dumas as a novelist and pointed the direction he was to follow … it successfully combined history, intrigue, high adventure, and romance in a manner soon to become familiar to thousands of readers the world over.”

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“Never in the whole course of French literature has there been anything comparable to Dumas’s output between the years 1843 and 1855,” André Maurois argues in his 1957 book The Three Musketeers: A Study of the Dumas Family. “Novels of from eight to ten volumes showered down without a break on the newspapers and the bookshops.” Even more remarkable, Maurois adds, is that “[i]n this vast production there were few failures.”

In 1844, Dumas released Les Trois Mousquetaires (The Three Musketeers), the first book in his successful d’Artagnan trilogy, which also featured Vingt Ans Après (Twenty Years After) and Le Vicomte de Bragelonne (The Viscount of Bragelonne). But it was with the Musketeers that Dumas achieved literary immortality. “Whatever liberties and mistakes may be ascribed to him,” Stowe observes, “in this novel [Dumas] produced a convincing illusion of historical reality, bringing a remote period to life with exceptional immediacy and concreteness.” To those who read The Three Musketeers in the bloom of childhood, the characters Athos, Porthos and Aramis, and not least d’Artagnan, signify adventure, fun and friendship. The paths they burn in the brain last for a lifetime.

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