Summary and book reviews of The Black Count by Tom Reiss

The Black Count

Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo

By Tom Reiss

The Black Count
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  • Hardcover: Sep 2012,
    432 pages.
    Paperback: May 2013,
    432 pages.

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Book Summary

Here is the remarkable true story of the real Count of Monte Cristo – a stunning feat of historical sleuthing that brings to life the forgotten hero who inspired such classics as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers.

The real-life protagonist of The Black Count, General Alex Dumas, is a man almost unknown today yet with a story that is strikingly familiar, because his son, the novelist Alexandre Dumas, used it to create some of the best loved heroes of literature.

Yet, hidden behind these swashbuckling adventures was an even more incredible secret: the real hero was the son of a black slave -- who rose higher in the white world than any man of his race would before our own time. 

Born in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), Alex Dumas was briefly sold into bondage but made his way to Paris where he was schooled as a sword-fighting member of the French aristocracy. Enlisting as a private, he rose to command armies at the height of the Revolution, in an audacious campaign across Europe and the Middle East – until he met an implacable enemy he could not defeat.

The Black Count is simultaneously a riveting adventure story, a lushly textured evocation of 18th-century France, and a window into the modern world's first multi-racial society. But it is also a heartbreaking story of the enduring bonds of love between a father and son.  

1
the sugar factory

Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie—father of the future Alex Dumas—was born on February 26, 1714, in the Norman province of Caux, a region of rolling dairy farms that hung above great chalk cliffs on the northwest coast of France. A scrawled scrap of paper from the time states that he was baptized "without ceremony, at home, because of the peril of death," suggesting he was too sickly to risk bringing in to the local church. He was the firstborn son of an old family that possessed a castle, a scarcity of cash, and an abundance of conniving members, though Antoine would one day outdo them all.

The boy survived, but the following year his sovereign, King Louis XIV, the Sun King, died after seventy-two years on the throne. As he lay dying, the old king counseled his heir, his five-year-old great-grandson: "I loved war too much, do not imitate me in this, nor in my excessive spending habits." The five-year-old presumably nodded earnestly. His reign, as ...

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  • award image

    Pulitzer Prize for Letters, Drama and Music
    2013

Reviews

BookBrowse

Tom Reiss's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, The Black Count, recounts the life and times of General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas (1762-1806), father of author Alexander Dumas and the inspiration behind the younger Dumas' novel The Count of Monte Cristo.

Reiss's subject is a compelling one; Dumas was born in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) to a black African slave woman and her white aristocratic owner. He rose from this humble origin - primarily on his own merits - to become the highest ranking person of color of all time in a continental European army (to this day). His swash-buckling exploits almost defy belief, rivaling those of the protagonists created by his son. But although this man was clearly larger-than-life, Reiss's exquisitely detailed research leaves no doubt that his reputation as a hero was deserved.

In addition to informing his readers about Dumas' life, the author covers quite a lot of history. The book contains fascinating information about slavery and racism in France; the pre-Revolution aristocratic system; the French Revolution itself; and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, including his Egyptian campaign.

I generally avoid non-fiction books and dislike biographies in particular, feeling that they're too dry for my tastes. This one is a huge exception though, and is in fact my favorite book of the year. It may seem trite to say a book reads like a novel, but, well, this one does. I never once thought it dragged or that I didn't care about the material being presented, and I was always eager to return to it after having to put it down. Dumas was an intriguing character who lived during a rapidly changing period in history, and Reiss's prose vividly conveys both the man and the time. I can't recommend it highly enough.  

Media Reviews
Time

Tom Reiss wrings plenty of drama and swashbuckling action out of Dumas' strange and nearly forgotten life, and more: The Black Count is one of those quintessentially human stories of strength and courage that also sheds light on the flukey historical moment that made it possible.

Christian Science Monitor

A remarkable and almost compulsively researched account…The author spent a decade on the case, and it shows.

New York Times Book Review

Fascinating…a richly imaginative biography.

National Public Radio

It would take an incredibly fertile mind to invent a character as compelling, exciting and unlikely as Gen. Alexandre (Alex) Dumas [hence] you might forget, while reading, that The Black Count is a work of nonfiction; author Tom Reiss writes with such narrative urgency and vivid description, you'd think you were reading a novel…The Black Count reminds us of how essential stories, whether true or invented, can be.

Ebony

Vibrant…Sometimes the best stories are true. This is one of them.

The Washington Post

Reiss details the criminal forgetting of Alex Dumas…This remarkable book stands as his monument.

The Wall Street Journal

Impressively thorough…Reiss moves the story on at an entertaining pace . . . fascinating.

Boston Globe

To tell this tale, Reiss must cover the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, and the rise of Napoleon toward Empire; he does all that with remarkable verve.

Bookpage

A thoroughly researched, lively piece of nonfiction that will be savored by fans of Alexandre Dumas. But The Black Count needs no partner: It is fascinating enough to stand on its own.

Newsweek/The Daily Beast

Superb... as improbable and exciting as [Dumas's] best books… but there is much more to this book than that.

The Seattle Times

Fascinating [and] swashbuckling...meticulously evokes the spirit of Revolutionary and Napoleonic France...Dumas comes across as something of a superhero...a monument to the lives of both Dumas and his adoring [novelist] son.

Publishers Weekly

Reiss capitalizes on his subject's charged personality as well as the revolutionary times in which he lived to create an exciting narrative.

Booklist

Thrilling…Reiss makes clear that Alex lived a life as full of adventure, triumph, and tragic loss as any of his son's literary creations…This absorbing biography should redeem its subject from obscurity.

Kirkus Reviews

A compelling new work by literary detective Reiss, author of The Orientalist, tracks the wildly improbable career of [Count of Monte Cristo author] Alexandre Dumas' mixed-race father…Reiss eloquently argues the General's case.

The Daily Mail (U.K.)

A piece of detective work by a prize-winning author...brilliantly researched.

The Herald (Scotland) (UK)

Triumphant…Reiss directs a full-scale production that jangles with drawn sabers, trembles with dashing deeds and resonates with the love of a son for a remarkable father.

The Literary Review (UK)

A story that has everything…The Black Count has its own moving narrative thread, made compelling by Reiss's impassioned absorption with the general's fate.

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