- - Monday, October 8, 2012

By Tom Reiss
Crown Publishers, $27, 414 pages

There was once a talented young man of mixed African and Caucasian ancestry who was obsessed with the shadow of a black father he barely knew. The father’s ghostly presence is at the heart of a book the son wrote, but the father himself remained an obscure figure even after his son achieved greatness. Clearly, there are the makings of a good story here, although — despite what you may be thinking — the son in question was not named Barack Obama.

He was Alexander Dumas Sr. (1802-1870), one of France’s most celebrated 19th-century romantic novelists, and the book was “The Count of Monte Cristo,” the saga of an innocent man buried alive in a dungeon cell who returned to seek justice.

The author’s nearly forgotten father, a colorful but minor figure in the revolutionary French army of the 1790s, had suffered a similar fate. The son of a disreputable member of the minor French nobility and a female slave, Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie (1762-1806), who usually signed himself simply “Alex Dumas” (his mother’s slave name), is now the subject of an engagingly written — if somewhat overblown — new biography by Tom Reiss.

As readers of Mr. Reiss’ last book, “The Orientalist,” will know, he is a gifted literary scavenger who specializes in digging up neglected or forgotten minor historical figures and then reintroducing them to contemporary readers. The travel and field research leading up to his books become a sometimes entertaining, sometimes distracting subplot, stretching what might have been an absorbing, factual feature article into a rather rambling book in which the occasional fresh fact is surrounded by conjectures about what the hero “must have,” “may have” or “probably” felt, saw, heard or thought.

Further padding takes the form of entertaining but marginally relevant footnotes that add nothing to the core narrative but give the author a chance to show off his trivia collection. In this case, he cites but two examples, a ghoulishly humorous footnote on the efficacy of the guillotine: Do the heads die instantly or do they linger for a few seconds after being severed from their bodies?, and a dead-pan (rather than a bedpan) footnote on the central role of the enema in late-18th- through early-19th century medical thinking.

Nor is “The Black Count” helped by the blatantly inflated claims made by the author about his hero. The real Gen. Dumas was a physical prodigy who excelled as a horseman and swordsman, who was brave as a lion in hand-to-hand combat and who always inspired the soldiers under his immediate command. In short, he was a born combat commander ideally suited to small-scale warfare where his personal magnetism and fearless leadership could overcome long odds.

What he was not was a major military commander with a grasp of higher tactics and strategy. In the words of the outstanding Napoleonic historian J. Christopher Herold, Dumas was “a veritable one-man army but not a good general.”

He was, however, remarkable in one respect. As the mulatto son of a black slave woman from France’s richest sugar island, Santo Domingo — today’s Haiti — he was the first man of color to attain the rank of major general in the French army, a striking historic achievement in itself. In describing Gen. Dumas’ documented acts of physical bravery, Mr. Reiss is on firm ground. On one occasion, Dumas single-handedly held off attacking Austrian units trying to seize a key bridgehead until reinforcements came up, earning him the nickname of the French “Horatius.”

Again and again, key conversations involving major figures like Napoleon Bonaparte, who may have disliked Gen. Dumas almost as much as the general disliked him, are based on the imaginary reconstructions of the general’s novelist son who was only 3 1/2 years old at the time of his father’s death, was notoriously inaccurate in all of his own historical novels and often had to rely on his widowed mother’s secondhand accounts of events she had not witnessed in trying to piece together the details of his father’s career.

All this is unfortunate since the known truth about Gen. Dumas is a stirring tale on its own merits. He was a humane, scrupulously honest officer in a corrupt, inhumane age — not a skilled strategist or commander of large armies, but an able tactician and inspiring leader in hand-to-hand combat. From the relatively few hard facts that survive, we know “The Black Count” was a good soldier and a good man. He deserves to be remembered for what he was, not as the mythical figure that his son fantasized and Mr. Reiss has passed on to us in inflated form.

Aram Bakshian Jr. served as an aide to Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.

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