The Daredevil Dumas
The name of Alexandre Dumas is often championed among the most accomplished persons of African heritage.
Jamaican-American historian Joel Augustus Rogers listed him in the second volume of his World's Greatest Men of Color, published in 1947.
With 'a multitude of talents in a single body,' Rogers referred to Dumas as 'the greatest, the most prolific, the most jovial writer the world has ever known.' But he was not alone.
Besides Dumas, Rogers profiles two other figures of great renown: his father and his son.
Altogether, these were the three musketeers.
Thomas Alexandre Dumas
Thomas-Alexandre Dumas (1762-1806) was born in what is now the island nation of Haiti. His father, Marquis "Antoine" Alexandre Davy de la Paillèterie, was a French plantation owner and his mother, Marie-Cèssette Dumas, was an African woman who was enslaved on Alexandre's plantation.
Though Thomas' son insisted that his grandparents were married, 20th century researchers found no evidence to corroborate this belief. No marriage certificate has been found. However, a columnist for the Atlantic Monthly, writing in 1896, claimed that at least the Marquis 'seems to have loved [her] sincerely.' As further proof of their union, Marie-Céssette was tasked with managing the family estate until her death in 1772.
In those days, it was customary for French noble planters, on their return to France, to take their sons of mixed blood with them, and to leave their daughters on the islands.
In 1780, Thomas' father left his two siblings, Jeannette and Marie-Rose, with a neighbor and took the boy with him back to Paris. Thomas was 18.
Six years later, when Dumas enlisted as a private in the army, he did so under the name Dumas as his father would not allow him to 'drag' his military titles and nobility 'in the mire of the lowest ranks.' "Du mas," a nickname given to his mother, signified that she was property "of the farm."
Needless to say, Dumas surpassed his own father in name and in fame.
To this day, Commander-in-Chief Thomas-Alexandre Dumas holds the title for the highest-ranking person of color in any continental European army.
Alexander Dumas père (sr.)
Alexandre Dumas père (1802-1870) was nearly 4 years old when his father died. His mother, Marie-Louise-Élisabeth Labouret, was the daughter of a French innkeeper. She, being White, and his father, being biracial, made Alexandre a quadroon (one-quarter Black).
Sottish novelist Andrew Lang (1844-1912) wrote that she was 'a good wife to [Colonel Thomas] and a good mother to his son.'
His father, having been snubbed by Emperor Napoleon, and emerging in a miserable condition from a Naples prison, left them a meager inheritance.
The young boy could not afford a proper education.
But this did not subtract from Alexandre's respect for his father.
In an 1833 article titled "How I Became a Playright," Dumas espoused republican views, which he attributed to the impressions of his hotblooded father. These impressions would remain with him all throughout his life.
After the Romantic movement, two literary forms remained, their arbiters warring for the French stage: the poets and the novelists.
British scholar Richard Garnett (1835-1906) places Dumas on the front lines of this 'battle.'
On one side was Victor Hugo, who invariably wrote poems even when he sought to express himself in prose. Then there was Alexandre Dumas the elder, of whom I would simply say that he was a prodigiously gifted story-teller.
Another writer says this:
The French drama of the period is said by those who know it to have been a watery thing. The great old masters were out—Dumas and Hugo were not yet in.
'The illustrious, aged Hugo,' was the last representative of the French Romantic School before 'the founders of the Naturalist school' emerged. Among them were the names of Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) and Marie-Henri Beyle (1783-1842). Then came Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) and the Goncourt brothers, Edmond and Jules. Garnett claims that Hugo held the title among most critics of his time as the 'King of Literature.'
This was the same Hugo who sparked a brawl between Traditionalists and Romantics at the Théâtre-Français with the release of his 1830 drama Hernani.
Lang, however, tells us that soon after his first smash hit Henry the Third and His Court was performed before the Duke of Orleans the previous year, it was Dumas who reigned supreme.
He was first in the forlorn hope that took the acropolis of the old classical drama.
Henry the Third signaled the triumph of Romanticism over Classicism.
It was Dumas, said Lang, who 'led the Romantiques of 1830 through the breach.'
He was probably better known for the time and more spoken of than Victor Hugo, whose really sonorous fame scarcely dates before the first night of Hernani.
The premiere of Dumas' play Anthony the following year made just as much noise. Just about any old play by Dumas was sure to draw curious admirers. Theaters could now charge more fees by advertising his name. Unsuccessful playrights gained a spotlight for themselves so long as Dumas was listed as a co-author.
American journalist Junius Henri Browne (1833-1902) inserted Hugo at the beginning of a piece he published on the paramount French writers of the modern era for one simple reason.
Victor Hugo is so well known that we shall content ourselves with simply placing his portrait at the head of this article.
And while Garnett didn't have much to say on Dumas, Hugo, in his own words, called him a legend in his own right.
No figure in this century has exceeded the popularity of Alexandre Dumas; his success - more than success - is a triumph. His fame thunders like the trumpet sounds of fanfare.
In former times the highest praise that one could bestow upon a novelist was to say: "He possesses much imagination."
'Dumas,' he acknowledged, 'was possessed of great imagination.'
...He had more ideas than anyone else. He could master a subject more rapidly for his purpose than anyone else...
The appeal of Dumas would eventually fall out of style.
But even after Dumas, there was hardly an author who could stand on his shoulders in this regard. Richard Garnett observed:
How great is the inferiority of the disciples...what power, what spirit, what dash and bravery [the works of Dumas] display.
Paul Féval père (1816-1887), a contemporary of Dumas, produced nothing approaching 'real literature' but 'instead imitations of Dumas.' Paul Féval, fils (1860-1933) followed in his father's footsteps with spin-offs to Dumas' Musketeers.
And while a considerable portion of Dumas' earlier works were collaborative projects, as French literary critic d'Almera notes:
A large number of novels, distinguished by the unity of the literary style, the harmony of composition, the integrity of views on historical events, could be created only thanks to the decisive participation of Dumas himself.
After another decade of plays and number of standalone novels, Alexandre Dumas authored The Three Musketeers (1844) and The Count of Monte Cristo (1844-1845), both inspired by the real and imagined experiences of his father. And the rest is history.
Alexandre Dumas fils (jr.)
Dumas père was the womanizer, bringing four children to the world through various extramarital affairs.
In 1824, Marie-Laure-Catherine Labay gave birth to Alexandre's son and namesake. In 1831, it was Belle Kreilsammner’s turn, with a daughter, Marie-Alexandrine. In 1860, the second daughter of Dumas, Micaëlla-Clélie-Josepha-Élisabeth Cordier, was born from Amelie Cordier. And finally, Dumas had another son named Henry Bauër (1851–1915).
Alexandre Dumas fils (1824-1895) was last on the literary ladder - the last Alexandre.
But all was well in the cosmos.
The sun had set. Another star was born.
By this time, the game had changed. Gone were the heroes and legends of the Romantic Era. The landscape of French literature demanded stories with more realism - stories which appealed to men, hardened by centuries of war, and women, whose dreams were shattered by the same.
Dumas père, said Lang, was a Romantic writer, though 'one does not think of him as [one].' After all, his work stood out from most other Romantiques, namely Théophile Gautier (1811-1872), Alfred de Musset (1810-1857), Petrus Borel (1809-1859), and Hugo.
Dumas fils, said Garnett, was undoubtedly a student of the Naturalist school.
Who better to rate the work of the great Dumas than one who stood in the shadow of that legend?
Lang wrote that the work of Dumas fils was 'so unlike that of his sire.' Browne also remarked that Dumas fils was 'very different from what his father was.' Still, we can thank Dumas fils for the perspective that only he could lend to his family legacy.
After traveling with his father to Spain and to North Africa, Dumas fils was inspired to write his first novels. But it was not until the release of his Lady of the Camellias in 1848 that Dumas awakened his destined stardom.
Dumas's story carried his name every where: he was highly lauded and bitterly censured; but every body admitted he had achieved an astonishing success.
The stageplay reached every theater in France and was translated into half a dozen languages. In the space of a year, Italy's Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) thought it worthy to transcribe into the language of the ears with a three-part opera, La Traviata.
In the wake of his son's newfound fame, the elder Dumas remarked:
Alexandre continues my glory.
Nevermind that this feat proved impossible to replicate - the son had made his father proud.
In a way, fils had caught up to père. As Rogers noted:
Both stood at the top of their literary world.
American diplomat and author Albert Rhodes (1840-1894) went as far as to say that Dumas fils was as skilled a playwright as his father was a novelist.
The son was the master of the father in dramatic literature.
Browne, at least, was fond of the full repertoire. So, too, was Dumas fils' longtime friend J. Meredith Read (1837-1896), who called the son's work a pleasure and the father's a delight.
With the passing of père, it was only a matter of time that the Dumas dynasty found themselves under attack. Fils was ready.
In 1878, Dumas fils defended his father's legacy against criticisms from art publisher Ludovic Baschet (1834-1909).
To sum up my opinion on this extraordinary man, I would say that he is as unknown as he is famous.
Anyone can comment on their preference of style, wrote Dumas fils, but all must recognize talent when they see it.
Rogers wrote that Dumas 'produced more literature than anyone who ever lived.'
Browne testified that on average, Dumas wrote 35 pages a day. Although it took him a whole two years to conceive it, he produced one of his greatest works, Mademoiselle de Belle-Isle, in just eight days. One of his best books, Chevalier de Maison Rouge, was written in 66 hours! He wrote so much that it was widely believed he kept a sweatshop of 'clever men' in Paris to turn out his dramas, his sketches, and even his memoirs all at a moment's notice.
Invention and industry like his had never been known in France or in any other land. He was a miracle of performance, the Samson of scribes.
Dumas fils further makes a point that his father was not just drawing lines on a page.
Racine said while speaking of his plays: "There is nothing left to do but to write it down.” Racine was right.
Most of all, says Dumas fils, the testament of greatness is the impression that an artist leaves on the world.
Any man who introduced to the fictional world of art one or more imperishable types was a man of genius, whatever form he used. To that [end], Alexandre Dumas is a man of genius.
François-Guillaume Dumas, who re-printed Dumas fils' letter in Baschet's (yes, the same critic Baschet) weekly L'Illustration, could not agree more.
Were the Dumas Black, White, or Mixed?
It is easy to claim, in our time, that the Dumas were Black men.
But what did they consider themselves and how were they defined according to the politics of their society?
Dumas' son wrote extensively on his father's time in the army.
For his skills in battle, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas was referred to by his enemies as The Black Devil. This was likely a reference to his African features as well.
When Dumas was called to command a regiment of Black volunteers, he accepted the offer with pride and dignity.
My father saw before him a vast field for the display of his sagacity and his courage.
Dumas' 'whimsical' and 'vivacious' father announced his birth to a family friend as follows:
I am glad to tell you my wife gave birth yesterday morning to a fine boy, who weighs nine pounds and is eighteen inches long. So you will see that if he continues to increase in the outside world at the rate he has done inside, he bids fair to attain to a pretty fine stature.
In the above letter, Thomas referred to Dumas' nine-year-old sister, Aimée-Alexandre Dumas, as having 'little black fingers.'
Upon his enlistment, a record was made which described Thomas Dumas as a 'brown-skinned' man with a 'small mouth, thick lips,' and 'frizzy black hair.' The color of his hair was described as 'something closer to ebony' than to 'bronze.'
But Alexandre Dumas, it seemed, did not actually consider his father to be a Black man.
My father was a Creole—with Creole characteristics.
The characteristics he was describing were those considered by most of high society as typical of the Creole, or mulatto: 'nonchalant, impetuous, changeable' with a 'usual indifference and laziness.'
What Dumas remembered most about his father was that he had the body of a champion. Dumas witnessed his father flex his strength on multiple occasions. One time, Dumas saw him 'hop' across a room with 'two men standing up on his bent knee.' Another time, his father was exiting their property when he realized that he left his key at home. Considering the effort that a return journey would take, his father instead seized the gate in his hands and broke a stone pillar that held it in place.
In his memoirs, Dumas' father is contrasted most vividly by another man whom he recalled as simply 'a Negro, my father's valet, named Hippolyte, pretty much a black simpleton.'
Dumas did not have any positive memories of Hippolyte. Compared to his father's muscular body, which was comparable to the image of Hercules, Hippolyte was basically a scrawny buffoon.
Hippolyte was an excellent swimmer, a clever runner, and quite a good horseman, but, as I have before implied, his intellectual faculties were far from corresponding to his physical abilities.
On one occasion, Dumas' mother asked the butler to take her flowerpots inside the house in order to keep them warm. He left the flowers and brought the pots inside. On another, Dumas lost his beloved pet sparrow when Hippolyte left the cage door open while cleaning. His excuse was that 'the poor little beast's cage smelt as though it needed fresh air.'
These memories were telling as to 'the state of his intelligence.'
Besides the gardener, the guard, and the kitchenmaid, this was the one person from Dumas' childhood we have to thank for the author's first impressions of unadulterated "Blackness."
So...were the Dumas Black?
American biographer Herbert Sherman Gorman (1893-1954) wrote of Thomas-Alexandre Dumas:
He was unquestionably a Negro.
Three years after the death of Dumas père, Browne recalled that he had a 'yellow complexion' and that his hair was 'woolly and bushy.'
Dumas, though the son of a Caucasian woman, was darker than his fighting father, and had many more marks of the mulatto. To his admixture of African blood he owed his vivid imagination, his extreme prodigality, his love of display, and his melodramatic instincts.
Gorman tells us that at age 13, Dumas was closer in appearance to your average Caucasian.
[He was] blue-eyed, with long fair curly hair just beginning to reveal signs of a crispness suspiciously negroid, and with thick red lips that suggested strawberries against his dazzlingly white complexion.
Dumas himself had this to say.
I was rather a good-looking young monkey. I had long, curling hair, which fell over my shoulders, and which did not crispen until I was fifteen.
Through his grandparents, as biographer Harry Spurr (? - 1906) told it:
He was destined to possess a good share of blue and of black blood.
Portrait of Dumas père at 26, autographed by "Alex Dumas"
by Achille Devéria
Scanned from the books Alexandre Dumas, a Biography and Study (1950) by A. Craig Bell and Le grand livre de Dumas (1997) edited by Charles Dantzig
(Source: Wikipedia Commons)
Spurr wrote that Dumas' ancestry had a profound influence on his character.
The esteemed author once said:
When I discovered that I was Black, I determined to so act that men should see beneath my skin.
Lang gives us a glimpse of Dumas' character and characteristics.
His unlucky colour and his crisp, thick hair gave people so many opportunities for jests, that Dumas anticipated the world and made the jokes himself. Perhaps the accident of blood and complexion was one of the reasons that prevented him from taking himself seriously.
During the revolution of 1830, the wife of a commander interrupted a standoff between Dumas and some officers, from whom he was attempting to secure gunpowder. In a sensational outburst, she referred to Dumas' entry as the sequel to the Haitian Revolution.
Dumas remarked that it took him a second before he understood that she was being triggered by his 'fuzzy hair' and his complexion, which was especially tanned at the moment from 'three days' exposure to the sun.'
She had taken me for a Negro.
At one time, in his later years, Dumas was entering a room of people, when one of his enemies seized upon a prime opportunity to embarrass him. All of a sudden, he shifted his discourse to a series of jokes about the intellectual capacity of "the Negroes." Dumas was still gathering his wits about him when the subject shifted from "the darkies" to "the mutts."
Evidently disconcerted by the showboat celebrity's unusual silence, the instigator turned towards Dumas and said:
By the way, my dear master, you must know yourself there, in [the part about the] Negroes, with all that Black blood flowing in your veins.
The room grew quiet.
As quoted in Alexandre Dumas, or, The Adventures of a Novelist (1968), Dumas quipped, cool as ever:
But most certainly.
In an earlier version of the story, the exchange between Dumas and the Frenchman was slightly different.
"You are a quadroon, Mr. Dumas?" he began.
From this discourse, we learn that Dumas considered himself a quadroon and not a Negro. But we cannot call his response a display of prejudice towards people of darker complexion. The description of his ancestor as a primate is tantamount to Dumas' calling his younger self a 'monkey.'
And evidently, as Rogers says, he used this joke on more than one ocassion.
Still, we are led to wonder: if Dumas' father was just barely a Black man, what would that make Dumas fils?
Rhodes offers a response.
Dumas is an octoroon, the only indication thereof being a slight kinkiness in the hair.
It seems there was no need for him to "pass" as there was no test of sorts, or so says the spotless scholar.
The French are without prejudice in the matter of race, and the eighth part of African blood which runs through his veins does not prevent him from enjoying any of the social privileges belonging to a pure-blooded Gaul.
But Dumas was not entirely incubated from matters of race.
Spurr makes it plain.
All his life Dumas was taunted with his Negro descent; the caricaturists and lampooners, with execrable taste, made the crisp hair and lean calves of the quadroon the subject of innumerable gibes.
His own fellow writers pulled no punches.
Balzac referred to Dumas as "that Negro." Jean Charles Emmanuel Nodier (1780-1844), seeing how Dumas spoiled himself in his wealth (in other words, hating on his swag), snapped, rather arrogantly, "Will you Negroes always be the same and forever...?"
In 1856, while both authors were alive, French publicist Alexandre Bonneau published an article in The French Contemporary Review and Atheneaeum in which he attempted to "clarify" the race of the Dumas.
Mr. Alexandre Dumas belongs to the African race in Haiti.
Bonneau had no reason to vindicate the Black race through the Dumas clan. By all accounts, he was no abolitionist, but in the same article, we find an outspoken White supremacist who applauded the extermination of African people worldwide.
Black people, in our opinion, constitute an inferior race...any inferior race is destined to disappear.
In effect, Bonneau admitted that both Alexandre Dumas and his father, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, "belong" to the Black race.
In that, he joins most of our own scholars. Why should we not claim them?
Were the Dumas White?
White supremacist Thomas Dixon, in The Clansman, his 1905 novel and play, which inspired the 1915 film Birth of a Nation, wrote that if France was populated with just enough 'men of the Dumas breed' (speaking of mulattoes) then France and the makeup of its population could not possibly remain the same. According to Dixon, Dumas was undeserving of any recognition as a national hero. He was nothing but a racial pollutant - a biological terrorist of the White race.
Dumas possessed enormous talent as a scribbler of romance, but as a man and a citizen the story of his life is a stench in the nostrils of civilization!
Dixon was saying, "We don't want the Dumas, nor do we need them."
William Henry Ferris (1847-1941), of the Negro Society for Historical Research, believed differently.
Dumas the father and Dumas the son have both carved niches for the race where their names are imperishably written, and France is proud to honor them.
He leaves a charge for Black men everywhere.
Black men, take heart, and go forth to make your contribution to civilization, sustained by a faith in the Almighty God, in the possibilities of the Negro.
And how did the Dumas help to advance the plight of Black people in their time?
I would caution on the side of Ferris, who says:
I do not know whether getting applause as an entertainer is in reality breaking down the prejudice and crossing the color line.
Dumas, in his Monte Cristo journal, was "woke" enough to acknowledge that his trip to Russia in 1861 coincided with a desire to 'attend the great work of liberating forty-five million slaves' under French dominion.
Once, he wrote a letter to the Bishop of Autun, acknowledging that he might have relatives on slave ships and thanking the bishop for his opposition to the slave trade.
Spurr wrote that Dumas wanted to travel to the Western Hemisphere, but when he thought about 'his Negro descent' and the racism he would face, especially in the United States, he decided that it would be better for him to retain his status in Europe.
J. A. Rogers believed that had Dumas been an American by birth, he would have lent his talents to the freedom movement like Frederick Douglass did.
Douglass himself felt that Dumas was not doing nearly enough to help his Black kinsmen who were suffering all over the world.
Nevertheless, Douglass had great respect for Dumas and his work.
In an 1892 interview with the Cleveland Gazette, Frederick Douglass named Alexandre Dumas as one of his favorite authors.
By all indications, Dumas was outshined by his own father, who refused to join France against the rebels in Haiti.
Even the younger Dumas commented on how this truth manifested itself in Dumas père's shortcomings as a family man, saying that on one occasion...
My father is so filled with vanity that he is capable of getting up into the back of his own carriage, to make people believe that he possesses a Negro footman.
As a matter of fact, Dumas did keep a Black servant named Joseph who he received as a gift from a friend. Rogers tells us that 'he was very fond' of the boy. We can only assume this means that Dumas treated him well.
So we learned about what the Dumas thought about themselves.
I wonder...What would they think about our world today?
It was the grandfather's will - the will to defend his mother's honor - that called him to carry on a Black name. It was the father's pride in his family that gave him the courage to stand up for his people. In defending his father's legacy, the son stood by that family tradition.
Each of the Dumas left their mark on history. And they did something even more remarkable. They dared to be Black in a White world.
Now, how about you?
With all of this knowledge available to us, what's your excuse?
I would like to personally thank Cornell University Library for providing access to some of the primary source materials used in this article.
For more on the life of Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, check out the book The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo (2012) by Tom Reiss.
Scientific Researcher, Independent Historian, and Co-Founder of Black Research Central
Château de Monte-Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
The International Library of Famous Literature, Volume XII (1899) edited by Richard Garnett
National Library of France - Revue Illustrée: Letters from Alexandre Dumas (December 15, 1895)
Philoxène - Dumas and the Negritude
CadyTech - Henri III et sa cour
CadyTech - Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Volume XLVII, June to November, 1893
Вокруг ТВ (AroundTV) - Alexander Dumas père
Littafcar: Literary Intersections From Africa and the Caribbean - How Haitian literature teaches us to think differently
The Galaxy - Volume 20 (June 1875 to January 1876)
Order of Books - Order of Alexandre Dumas' Books
New York Public Library - Images: Black Abolitionists in France
The life and writings of Alexandre Dumas (1902) by Harry A. Spurr
The Incredible Marquis Alexandre Dumas (1929) by Herbert Gorman
The New York Times - World's Great Men of Color by John Ralph Willis, February 4, 1973, Page 342
Atlantic Monthly, Volume 77 (January 1896)
The British Library - Black Europeans: Alexandre Dumas
Black Research Central
When Negritude Meets Pettitude.