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Author Tom Reiss Shares Historic Story Behind The Black Count

03/26/2014 05:18 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2014

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, author and historian Tom Reiss tells the fascinating story of the lesser-known Alexandre Dumas, father of and inspiration to the famed French writer of the same name. The senior Dumas rose from slavery to become one of the highest-ranking military officers of color in the Western world. As fascinating as Dumas' own tale is, the telling of how Reiss uncovered the story, which takes place during one of Europe's most racially progressive eras (and one of its least), is as gripping.

Reiss told the inside story of The Black Count during a recent Aspen Writers' Foundation Winter Words event. In introducing him, AWF Creative Director Adrienne Brodeur called the book "one of the most riveting biographies I've ever read in my life." But what few people knew, until the book was published, was that the real life of Dumas the elder was the source of his son's famous novels, The Count of Monte Cristo, and The Three Musketeers.

Reiss, who said he always picks subjects that haven't been written about before, first learned of Dumas the soldier as a teenager. He grew up reading Dumas the novelist's work -- starting with a 1938 copy of The Count of Monte Cristo, the only book Reiss' mother brought with her when she moved from Paris to New York City as a child after her parents were murdered by the Nazis. Reiss' readings led him to the incomplete, 10-volume memoirs of Dumas the novelist, whose first 200 pages talks about his father.

"So I first read about this man in the memoirs of his son, and it felt like a template of the novels," said Reiss, who added that he was amazed that no one had ever picked up the story.

Many years later, Reiss did. The acclaimed author of The Orientalist, and co-author of Führer-Ex began his research by visiting the northern French town where Dumas the novelist was born (his father had fallen in love with his mother, an innkeeper's daughter, during a military campaign). A woman who had promised Reiss she had "incredible documents" died just before he arrived, and Reiss spent weeks there, enlisting the help of its townspeople in hiring someone to crack open the safe where the documents were stored.

When the safe was finally opened, Reiss found among other documents the prison reflections of Dumas the elder, which "sounded like the beginning of The Count of Monte Cristo."

From then, Reiss pieced together the "epic trajectory" of Dumas the soldier's life, which included a meteoric rise to military success and a fall nearly as meteoric. The son of a French nobleman and his black African slave, the elder Dumas spent his childhood on the island of Saint Domingue, now Haiti, which supplied the world with sugar and by virtue of that and the slave trade made France the dominant Western power of the time. The family lived in obscurity in the highlands of the country until the nobleman returned to France after his own father's death to claim his inheritance. He sold Dumas's mother and siblings into slavery, and pawned Dumas, his favorite son, to a French officer in Port-au-Prince until he could have him sent to France, where he then became trained as a nobleman.

Dumas, who went from slave to count within a year of arriving in France, turned out to have a knack for military skills, particularly fencing, and rose from the lowest ranks of the French army at a time when men of color enjoyed near racial equality.

"The world's first civil rights movement," as Reiss described it, had begun in the 18th century under Louis XV and "accelerated under the French Revolution." Dumas, who at the beginning of the Revolution led a legion of black and mixed-race men, within two years rose to command 50,000 French troops in a completely integrated army, becoming the equivalent of a four-star general and the highest-ranking black military officer in the Western world until Colin Powell nearly 200 years later.

"Here you have a story of an amazing time and an incredible moment for racial emancipation," said Reiss. "France in the 1790s was a shockingly integrated society and near the head of it was this shockingly talented man."

Reiss found documents from a known racist describing Dumas as "the best soldier in the world" and a letter in which he was thought to be the leader of an expedition in Egypt, when in fact Napoleon Bonaparte was.

But Napoleon, with whom the general developed a rivalry, proved to be Dumas' undoing. Dumas returned to France after the Egypt expedition -- having languished in a dungeon in Naples for two years -- to find his adopted country quite changed. Napoleon had seized power in a coup d'etat backed by the sugar lobby, and peeled back civil rights to the point where it was similar to apartheid, said Reiss. Dumas' marriage had become illegal, and he had to appeal to the government just to live in his own house.

"To this day there's no statue of General Dumas in Paris; he has not been celebrated and is virtually unknown in France," said Reiss, who added that this is changing due to the book.

The author never set out to write a story about the French Revolution, nor its largely unknown place in history as a pivotal moment of racial integration. He was simply a lifelong fan of Alexandre Dumas the novelist. But, he said, "I'm fascinated by cultural milieu that shows the moment or possibility of love and understanding breaking apart."

And it's that fascination, along with Reiss's sleuth-like approach to research, which resulted in the Pulitzer Prize-winning package that is The Black Count.