Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.
Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 83: Which famous 19th-century French author had African ancestry?
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
“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.
The same year that saw The Three Musketeers also saw the serialization of Dumas’ Le Comte de Monte Cristo (The Count of Monte Cristo), which was published in book form in 1846. In these famous works, Dumas turned not only to national history, but also to family history, drawing on the experiences, real and imagined, of Gen. Thomas-Alexandre Dumas. Dumas’ other successful novels included the Valois cycle, inspired by France’s religious wars of the 1570s and 1580s, and five works known as the Marie-Antoinette romances, inspired by the reign of King Louis XVI and the French Revolution, a series that climaxed in 1855.
Non-Fiction: Travel, Food and Memoirs
A veritable cosmopolitan, Dumas lived in Florence for three years, in Brussels for two and in Russia for nine months, and he loved sailing on the Mediterranean Sea. Yet he never stopped writing for long. Dumas also founded the weekly newspapers Le Mousquetaire (1853-1857), Le Monte-Cristo (1857-1862) and D’Artagnan (1868), as J. Weintraub writes in the article “Talking About Cooking: Alexandre Dumas’s Causerie Culinaire,” in Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture (Summer 2011). And Dumas’ wide interests inspired him to write what he called causeries, or chats, as well as food criticism. Then there was his massive memoir, which ran about 3,000 pages but covered his life only through age 32!
Dumas lived his personal life to the fullest. He had numerous mistresses and fathered children with multiple women, including French actress Bell Krelsamer and New Orleans Creole poet and performer Adah Menken. Dumas’ most famous child (with the seamstress Marie Catherine Laure Lebay) also was his first, Alexandre Dumas fils, born in 1824. Like his father, Dumas became an accomplished writer. He also inherited more worldly pursuits from his father. Apparently, the duo partied together and even shared mistresses. “At least, if he doesn’t set me a good example, he provides me with an excellent excuse,” Dumas fils reportedly said, according to Edwards.
Dumas and Race
The issue of race was never far from Dumas, although it was not a subject he usually broached himself. In his biography of Gen. Dumas, Reiss points out, “The writer Dumas grew up in a very different world from that of his father—a world of rising, rather than diminishing, racism. His fellow novelist Balzac referred to him as ‘that negro.’ ”
The attacks grew worse as Dumas became more successful. Reiss notes that “critics launched an endless, damaging public attack on Dumas, mocking his African heritage.” Shockingly, “[o]ne well-known caricature shows Dumas leaning over a hot stove on which he is boiling his white characters alive: his popping eyes glare demonically at a musketeer he is lifting to his impossibly huge lips, apparently about to sample the European’s flesh.” Indeed, the ad hominem attacks by Dumas’ nemesis, Eugène de Mirecourt, were dripping in racism. Reiss relates that Mirecourt scathingly wrote, “Scratch Monsieur Dumas’s hide and you will find the savage … a Negro!”
Dumas’ quick wit served him well when he was attacked. Most famously, he said to one of his critics, “My father was a mulatto, my grandfather was a Negro, and my great-grandfather a monkey. You see, sir, my family starts where yours ends.” (Joel Dreyfuss’ 2010 article on The Root, “Depardieu Covers Alexandre Dumas,” recounts the retort). Dumas might have been a Frenchman, but he was certainly schooled in playing the dozens with racists!
At the same time, Dumas faced criticism from African Americans who believed he did not do enough to uplift the race. Take Frederick Douglass, who loved The Count of Monte Cristo and Dumas’ 1843 novel Georges, in which, according to Carr, “Dumas examines colonialism through the eyes of a half-French mulatto in Mauritius.” But that didn’t keep Douglass from accusing Dumas of not speaking out enough for the race. According to Waldo E. Martin Jr.’s 1985 book The Mind of Frederick Douglass, the activist wrote, “We have nothing to thank Dumas for. Victor Hugo, the white man, could speak for us, but this brilliant colored man who could have let down sheets of fire upon the heads of tyrants and carried freedom to his enslaved people, had no word in behalf [of] liberty for the enslaved.” In other words, Douglass respected Dumas’ talents but did not think he was a leader.
Reading all of these attacks together, I cannot help but wonder whether Dumas sometimes felt like a man without the Musketeers, black or white, to back him up when it came to issues of race.
Dumas died in Puys, France, in 1870 and was buried in the family vault. In 2002, he was exhumed and reinterred in the hallowed Pantheon in Paris, with the likes of Voltaire, Rousseau, Hugo, Zola, the Curies and L’Ouverture. According to a report on the proceedings published in the Winter 2002-2003 issue of The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, “French President Jacques Chirac declared at the ceremony that he was not only paying tribute to one of the great French writers but repairing an injustice to all French men and women who have been victims of racism.” Amen to that!
The works of Alexandre Dumas père live on, of course, as The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, among other novels and plays, remain popular choices for stage and screen. Yet very few people are aware that the author of these world classics was a black man. Why do some still so naturally assume the opposite, or at least not question, whether their favorite white characters can come only from the mind of a white person? As we struggle against such limits, let it also be a caution to us not to impose similar limits on any writer hoping to follow her or his imagination beyond the color line.
As a sign of our progress, the BBC is bringing Dumas’ classic adventure tale back to life as The Musketeers, and this time one of the trio, Porthos, is being played by a brother, Howard Charles. The role, as described on the show’s website, is “a larger-than-life character, who has come from humble beginnings to become a soldier in the most elite regiment in the land, finding a family in the other Musketeers.”
“[T]he casting of Porthos works as a homage to the parentage and race of Alexandre Dumas père,” Stuart Jeffries of The Guardian wrote earlier this year, adding that it also, “helpfully, is [a] challenge [to] the increasingly implausible myth of a Europe that was altogether white before large-scale 20th-century immigration from former colonies. The ‘historical accuracy’ that some people want from Sunday-night costume dramas may demand that Europe was whitewashed, but that doesn't mean the rest of us have to follow suit.”
The Musketeers premieres on Sunday, June 22, at 9 p.m. EST on BBC America. Let’s all tune in and celebrate the historical accuracy of the creative genius that gave us these timeless characters, the prolific and brilliant Alexandre Dumas père.
As always, you can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.