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Tom Reiss – The Black Count

Book Cover

After slavery came acceptance in France, which allowed something remarkable to happen.

Publisher: Crown (Random House)
Pages: 330
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-307-38246-7
First Published: 18th September 2012
Date Reviewed: 19th October 2012
Rating: 4/5

Reiss details the life and career of the novelist Alexandre Dumas’s father, General Alex Dumas, born of a white French father and black African mother, who led armies during the French Revolution.

The Black Count is a remarkable book that details what can be learned from previously unpublicised sources to introduce to the world a fantastic soldier whom history had forgotten due to later racial prejudice. A rather long book for the sources used, Reiss provides ample context in which to set Dumas’s trials and happiness. This context can sometimes be a distraction as there is a great deal of it, perhaps too much, and it often goes off on a tangent. It is brilliant for the overall history and especially the history of abolition, but doesn’t quite match the premise of the book, which is to tell Dumas’s story.

However what is provided inevitably ends up trumping any arguments for premise; Reiss has given the history of slavery, abolition, general life, and the journey from acceptance back to intolerance. Whilst books about the period will include information about freed slaves and otherwise, the coverage and particular angle the writer takes puts them to shame. Instead of simply detailing, Reiss gets to the heart of his subject, discussing such aspects as the aristocratic day-to-day lives of free mixed-race citizens of the Caribbean and how accepting pre-Napoleonic France was of such citizens when they arrived in Europe. The author opens the door to a world that the modern world in general does not know nearly enough about, and it is surely important that these facts, as they relate to our present day, are provided for general consumption. In fact, the first few chapters themselves are so detailed as to render a several week course in colonial slavery somewhat superfluous. Reiss even includes the irony that came with a society suddenly finding their fashions being lauded by ex-slaves, feeling the need to be meticulous in their rules concerning the ban of such fashion in the colonies.

When, years later and by then a war hero, he lost his lackey in a storm at sea, he would find himself in a true predicament: facing enemy attack was one thing; arranging his own clothes was quite another.

Reiss provides all the knowledge he can about General Alex Dumas, the hero of wars who single-handedly won battles whilst living in a racially liberal world. He, Reiss, goes back and forth between sources to surmise the most likely story and, crucially, includes excepts from Dumas’s letters that only serve to further what is said – Reiss’s conclusions and suggestions are the understandable product of reading primary source material. The writer makes pauses for thought no concern, there is no reason not to believe what Reiss says. Dumas is the family man, the freedom fighter who unwittingly becomes a victim of his side’s success, and a true humanitarian. Despite what later goes against him, his aims remain strong and well meant: a republic for the equality of all.

The cautious reader may wish to know whether or not a prior acquaintance with the novelist Dumas’s works are necessary for comprehension. At first it seems so, but although he may not say it, Reiss has made his biography accessible and details all the literature references needed. He repeats information when new facts are to be added. Also included are quotations from (the novelist) Alexandre Dumas’s own memoirs, and these are treated with respect whilst being analysed for what they are – Reiss explains that the son idolised the father and thus although his words are used, they are acknowledged to be biased when other sources present opposing material.

Reiss refers to himself throughout the book, and it feels very natural. The references are there to demonstrate the discovery and usage of sources, and also to better describe to the reader present-day situations, such as the difficulty in gaining access to a vault. It’s a unique way of writing, more often used in documentaries, but due to the overall style, it works. As for the style it is readable, casual. Reiss himself says at the end that he wanted to avoid making his work particularly academic. However there are some occasions when it doesn’t quite seem right, such as references to a modern person in order to provide an illustration readers will understand. It doesn’t work because the people chosen are not universal, and thus the handy metaphor can be lost.

Reiss has an evident enthusiasm for his subject, yet remains objective. Indeed considering the sources he presents it is incredibly difficult to see Dumas as anything other than who Reiss presents him to be. There is some bias, however, and obvious personal opinions – for example Reiss dislikes Marie Antoinette, who he describes as “frivolous” and “fierce Austrian music snob that she was”, and leaves it like that without elaborating. Yet he achieves his basic aim, to introduce to the world General Alex Dumas. The book may be lacking in Dumas detail, but it is difficult to put that down to the author himself. The availability of sources and the likelihood of their destruction means that Reiss has undoubtedly made the best job of anyone yet, if indeed anyone else has tried. Such a work and research are to be commended for the valuable information they have uncovered for study.

With The Black Count, Reiss has done his job. May others now extend it and let it set an example.

I received this book for review from Crown Publishers.

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October 22, 2012, 3:57 pm

I had no idea this guy even existed, and now I am fascinated.

This is a fantastic review, I like how you have pointed out where the author has been subjected and how he has stated he didn’t want the book to be too academic.

This is the sort of story everyone should have access too, so to not be very academic works towards that cause.

I’ll be adding this to my wishlist.


October 22, 2012, 4:23 pm

This sounds like a fascinating read. I have several of Alexandre Dumas’s novels on my Classics Club list but never knew anything about his father!


October 22, 2012, 8:44 pm

How interesting – definitely an aspect of history that is new to me!


October 23, 2012, 5:29 pm

This sounds *amazing* — I need to get it!


October 24, 2012, 1:09 am

I’m just reading this now on my Nook. It’s crazy! I never even knew Alexandre Dumas pere was mocked for being black, let alone that he had this father who had apparently the craziest swashbucklingest life ever. The things we don’t know, eh?


October 25, 2012, 11:41 pm

Alice: I know, me either, which is why I’m so happy this book has been published. Good point, it’s nice he hasn’t been academic because the subject matter renders it important across the board.

Jessica: Same here. The nice thing is the book makes you want to read the novels more, and now, with this story being published, I’d say the reverse is true, also.

Jennifer: It was new to me too. And it provides a whole new context from which to learn about the Revolution, different to what is generally taught.

Audra: It is very good.

Jenny: It’s good that he (the younger) was able to be so successful given the way racial ideologies are presented. The good thing is, we know it now. Better than never.

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness)

October 26, 2012, 4:22 am

I totally agree with you about the context. There is a LOT of it. Some is important… and other parts were boring because I just wanted to learn about Alex Dumas!

Claire ‘Word by Word’

October 31, 2012, 8:44 pm

I read this recently and really enjoyed it, even Reiss’s own journey to uncover the letters and papers. He was a true hero and deserves to be more well-known and acknowledged for his extraordinary life and bravery.


November 2, 2012, 3:07 pm

I loved the context! All of it! I’m a sucker for it.



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