Alexandre Dumas: A True Literary Legend

15 Feb

Most people over the age of 35 may not be familiar with this famous French author. His works have inspired other writers such as Jules Verne, Juan Gomez-Jurado, Robert E. Howard and Stephen King. But if you’ve read The Count of Monte Cristo or The Three Musketeers, then you’ve certainly heard of Alexandre Dumas.

Born Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie on July 24, 1802, Dumas was a historian, correspondent, playwright, novelist and magazine writer. His birthplace was “in the village of Villers-Cotterêts, just outside of Paris, France, the third child born to Marie Louise Labouret, daughter of an inn keeper, and Thomas Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie (1762-1806) a military General under Napoléon. Alexandres’ grandfather, the Marquis Alexandre Davy de La Pailleterie (1710-1786) married a slave he fell in love with in San Domingo (now Haiti) named Marie Louise Césette Dumas (d.1772). Thomas took her last name when he himself enlisted with the French army. After a falling out with Napoléon due to his criticism of the Egypt campaign, and a long imprisonment which left him in poor health, Thomas returned returned home a broken man with no pension. After his death the family was left in dire financial straits. Alexandre’s mother set her best efforts to providing an education for her son although he proved to be less than enthusiastic about it. He attended Abbé Grégoire’s school before finding employment with a local notary to help support the family.”

Dumas’s widely known works The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers are only a couple of this great man’s respected works. For those of you not aware of The Count of Monte Cristo, it is an adventure novel written in 1844 detailed as: “a huge literary and financial success for Dumas père. Through protagonist Edmond Dantès the reader is taken along his journey of a wrongful trial, his search for justice, revenge, and ultimately riches, forgiveness, and love.” (Source:

The Three Musketeers began as a serial in a newspaper, is a story about a gentleman named D’ Artagnan who wishes to become a musketeer like his friends Aramis, Porthos and Athos. To clarify, a musketeer is basically “an early modern type of infantry soldier equipped with a musket. Musketeers were an important part of early modern armies, particularly in Europe.” (Wikipedia). Along the way, D’Artagnan has adventures while learning what it means to be “all for one, one for all”, a constant motto he and his musketeers would cry out.

Of course, the issue of race was a part of Dumas’s life and one he could not escape from. He wrote Georges in 1843, a novel that “addressed some of the issues of race and the effects of colonialism. All his life he referred to himself as a negro.” In the novel plot itself, it “concerns the life of Georges, the son of a wealthy mulatto plantation owner named Munier, in the Île de France (modern day Mauritius). While part-black, Georges appears to be very light-skinned, if not white. As a child, Georges witnesses an attempt by the British to gain control of the island. Because George’s father is a mulatto, the other plantation owners refuse to fight alongside him. Instead, George’s father leads the blacks and delivers a crushing blow against the invading forces. Refusing to acknowledge that a man of colour saved them, M. Malmedie and the other white plantation owners ignore the accomplishment.” The novel also deals with identity crisis, slavery and other issues of that time.

Dumas had a response for a gentleman who challenged his mixed race background: “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.” Even then, Dumas found respect difficult. “Although his books were revered by his contemporaries, he was often mocked for his colour. “In caricatures or in sketches he was always presented with big lips, with Afro hair, as a sort of monster.” “ (Source: : Alexandre Dumas the Black-Frenchman: France Attempt to Steal Black History Creates Row)

Dumas passed away on December 5, 1870. Again, the measure of his works are still being felt today. Not only are his works translated in hundreds of languages, but over 200 motion pictures as well. In recent years, French President Jacques Chirac acknowledged the racism in Dumas’s lifetime proclaiming, “a wrong had now been righted with Alexandre Dumas enshrined alongside fellow authors Victor Hugo and Voltaire. “ The statement following a ceremony on November 2002 where his buried remains had been exhumed and “in a televised ceremony, his new coffin, draped in a blue-velvet cloth and flanked by four men costumed as the Musketeers: Athos, Porthos, Aramis and D’Artagnan, was transported in a solemn procession to the Panthéon of Paris, the great mausoleum where French luminaries are interred.”

Perhaps it can be mentioned that Alexandre Dumas, although not recognized today or as often, is one of our cherished literary legends who by the power of his pen used his gift to create tales for generations. However, it is that struggle of his claimed heritage that will always be debated even in the 21st Century. Case in point: the controversy surrounding French actor Gerard Depardieu portraying the author in a movie entitled L’Autre Dumas, which has received the ire of “Non-white celebrities, some Dumas experts and black organisations are angry because they say that the producers missed a chance to celebrate France’s ethnic diversity and remind the world of the writer’s part black origins. “There is a mechanism of permanent discrimination by silence,” said Jacques Martial, a black actor who made his name playing a television police detective. Patrick Lozès, President of the Council of Black Associations (CRAN) wondered: “In 150 years time, could the role of Barack Obama be played in a film by a white actor with a fuzzy wig? Can Martin Luther King be played by a white?””

More details on the movie and the harsh reaction to Depardieu in this link. Also in this BBC article, more criticism found here.

It is understandable while Dumas may be a national literary legend to the French, it is part of the same issue President Chirac admitted during the ceremony and one which Dumas addressed himself. While this may be discussed at a later date, it would behoove all of us to know that Dumas was proud of his heritage and we in the present time, should recognize that. While Mr. Depardieu certainly had his right to play Dumas the man, the reality and problems Dumas faced back in the 18th Century are still constant even now in America. Unless that is properly addressed and discussed, we’ll always have this debate. Always. Judging by the pictures and drawings of Mr. Dumas, it is believed we can all come up with our own conclusions which ethnicity he shared.

Mr. Dumas had a son who also became a successful author. Alexandre Dumas, fils (1824-1895) was also a dramatist and the writer of The Lady of the Camellias (Camille) (1848) and L’affaire Clemenceau (The Clemenceau Case) (1867). It’s good to know Alexandre Dumas, fils carried on the literary legacy like his father.

Alexandre Dumas left an impressive body of work, the following links will prove that. While we celebrate our American literary forefathers, we should also recognize the achievements through print of our famous writers of long ago as well. Whether it be Dumas or Douglass (who lived during this time), each of them dealt with the problems that arose because of their race, yet continued to produce great works for all of us to enjoy and be entertained.

Let’s remember that it’s “all for one, one for all.”

Wikipedia Dumas entry

The meaning of “All for One, One for All”

Wikipedia entry on Alexandre Dumas, fils

Detailed Dumas biography

CNN Black History Month mention

Amazon: Alexandre Dumas

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Posted by on February 15, 2011 in Uncategorized


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