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A prolific novelist and world traveler, the French writer Alexandre Dumas in the 19th century in such novels as “The Three Musketeers” and “The Count of Monte Christo” popularized the concept that “slender threads” determine the fates of individuals and nations. It’s not some vague, pat notions of “God’s will,” destiny, predestination, divine retribution or a heavenly puppeteer pulling strings to control, bless or condemn the life of every individual and nation. “Life and fortune hang,” Dumas wrote, “on slender threads.” The lines between success and failure, triumph and tragedy, happiness and eternal grief are decidedly thin.
This point of view made for a dramatic and highly successful literary device. Dumas is renowned in France, and the world over. But it can also be applied to the study of history. Instead of sleepily and dully accepting a deterministic narrative that our culture, politics, personal and national and international histories were inevitable, it is far more interesting to identify turning points and to think hard about how things could have turned out differently.
Dumas had strong personal reasons for such a philosophy. His father’s life was the very epitome of “slender threads” leading at first to great success, and later to great failure, due largely to racial prejudice. His father was mulatto, his grandmother was an African slave in Haiti, his grandfather was a French nobleman. Yet as famous as Dumas, the son, became in the 19th century, few knew the real story of his father. On the day his father died, Dumas the son told his mother he was going to heaven “to kill God – for killing daddy.” Later, as an adult, he resurrected his father in popular culture by turning him into the swashbuckling hero of some of the world’s most popular novels.
The son probably spent his whole life wondering “what if” his father’s life had turned out differently if he only could have achieved his true destiny. In his son’s fiction, he did. Some say his novels were his revenge against Napolean for prejudicially banishing his father.
It took a brilliant historian and gifted writer, Tom Reiss (Harvard, Class of ’86) to uncover the inspiration behind so many books and movies. The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 2013.
“I’ve always loved exploring history,” Reiss wrote in an essay posted on Amazon.com. “It’s like an uncharted hemisphere, and when you look at it closely, it has a tendency to change everything about your own time. I’m also drawn to outsiders, people who have swum against the tide. I often feel like a kind of detective hired to go find people who have been lost to history, and discover why they were lost. Whodunnit?
“In this case, I found solid evidence that, of all people, Napoleon did it: he buried the memory of this great man – Gen. Alexandre Dumas, the son of a black slave who led more than 50,000 men at the height of the French Revolution and then stood up to the megalomaniacal Corsican in the deserts of Egypt. (The “famous” Alexandre Dumas is the general’s son – the author of The Three Musketeers.) Letters and eyewitness accounts show that Napoleon came to hate Dumas not only for his stubborn defense of principle but for his swagger and stature – over six feet tall and handsome as a matinee idol – and for the fact that he was a black man idolized by the white French army. (I found that Napoleon’s destruction of Dumas coincided with his destruction of one of the greatest accomplishments of the French Revolution – racial equality – a legacy he also did his best to bury.)”