- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 8, 2002

On the 200th anniversary of his birth July 22, 2002 the earthly remains of Alexander Dumas, grandson of a French marquis and a black Dominican slave and son of one of Napoleon's generals, were ceremoniously consigned to be placed in France's celebrated Pantheon in Paris, beside those of his friend Victor Hugo. Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile Zola and Andre Malraux are among the other distinguished men of French letters lying there on the Left Bank. The actual interment took place on Nov. 30, 2002, making the front page of Le Figaro.
"The Three Musketeers" and "The Count of Monte Cristo" both published in 1844 were bestsellers from the moment they first appeared in print. Like wildfire the two works were translated into virtually all the world's major languages and many of the minor.Without interruption both novels continue selling vigorously all around the world today. As for motion pictures, hardly a year has passed since the creation of the cinema, without some producer somewhere deciding to film the swashbuckling adventures of Athos, Porthos, Aramis and of course D'Artagnan, the fourth musketeer.
As for "The Count of Monte Cristo," that work has continued to lure moviemakers as well. The most recent version of the classic, released earlier this year, is the highly successful film starring James Caviezel.
Dumas was a prodigious, larger than life-size individual. Success seems to have come to him literally in one single night, at 26, when the Comedie Francaise presented his historical drama, "Henri III et sa cour" (Henri III and His Court). The audience including the Duke d'Orleans went wild; Dumas was the toast of Paris. And with his contemporaries Victor Hugo, Honore de Balzac, Alfred Victor Comte de Vigny, Charles Baudelaire, Theodore Gericault, Eugene Delacroix, Georges Sand he continued to be for most of his career. Dumas' generosity knew no bounds and ultimately became his undoing; later in life he was close to poverty.
In 1870, he turned up on his son's doorstep, saying, "I've come to you to die." Which he did in December of that year, but not before rereading some of his own novels. Ultimately he judged "The Three Musketeers" his most successful work.
Tall (six feet), slim, athletic and attractive in his youth, with brilliant blue eyes, Dumas was a prodigiously gifted and dazzling raconteur who fascinated and dominated Paris salons and women. He wrote with wit and tremendous verve, and had an amazing gift for creating action scenes. Dumas had researchers for the novels he produced that covered a vast stretch of French history from the Middle Ages to his own day.
For this he was criticized and even taken to court, but you need only to compare the text, say, of a key chapter in "The Three Musketeers," prepared by Auguste Maquet with the one Dumas wrote for the published novel. Dumas' words bring the characters and scene instantly, vividly alive. There is no question as to who the true author was.
Successful though he may have been for most of his life, Dumas also suffered a fair amount of insult and ridicule because of his racial heritage. Balzac, envious of Dumas' enormous popularity and fame, referred to him contemptuously in print as "the Negro." This year a number of books published in France commemorating Dumas' glorious entry into the Pantheon reproduced some of those caricatures from the popular press of the day. In a word, they are crude and cruel.
All his life, Dumas was touchingly proud of his father, a French Revolutionary war general known as "the Black Devil" for his military prowess, who died when the author was only five. His paternal grandfather, Marquis Alexandre-Antoine Davy de la Palleterie, had brought his son a handsome, bright youth also named Alexander to France when he was 18 from Saint Domingue. The marquis left behind on the Caribbean island his son's two sisters and a brother to be sold off into slavery.
When the young man decided he wanted to join the army, his father refused to allow the noble family name to be attached to a mere private. "You'll take your mother's name: Dumas." That name derives from "du" "of the" and "mas" - meaning "country farm." Simply it meant Gen. Dumas' mother belonged to the property, the manor house in short she was clearly a slave.
Curiously throughout Dumas' career as an author, during which he produced an astonishing amount of work, (estimated to be over 375 published novels, though Dumas claimed it was 1,000) he wrote only one about what it was like being of mixed blood in a white society, the 1843 "Georges." Otherwise he never wrote or spoke of what his own experience may have been.
The eponymous hero proves by his energy, intelligence and fierce will to be the equal if not the superior of any white man. This character clearly foreshadows one of Dumas' most celebrated creations: the Count of Monte Cristo, and arguably reflects the writer's own sense of self-worth. The novel was only republished in France in 1974, and in the United States for the first time in 1975. (Here I confess to personal involvement: I was responsible for "Georges" being published in the United States while a senior editor at Ballantine Books in New York.)
In honor of the anniversary year and his internment in the Pantheon, the French have published new editions of many of Dumas' works, including, for the first time since their original appearance, travel books, essays, and plays.
Even if you don't read French, it's well worth renewing or discovering the delight of Dumas' two masterworks: "The Three Musketeers" and "The Count of Monte Cristo." They're easily found in paperback in practically every bookstore. It really doesn't hurt these days to be reminded of courage, honor, loyalty and friendship.

Cynthia Grenier writes The Mag Trade column for The Washington Times.

"The Lost Word" appears on the second Sunday of each month. In it, distinguished commentators remind us of interesting but often forgotten writers and books from years past.



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