Profile: Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870)

Alexandre Dumas was born on this date in 1802.  He was a Black French writer who was one of the more prolific writers in the 19th century theater world.

Born in Villers-Cotterêts near Paris, Dumas’ grandfather was the Marquis Antoine-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie and his grandmother was Marie-Céssette Dumas, a Black slave from Jérémie, Saint-Domingue (Haiti). Young Alexandre grew up in Villers-Cotterêts. Dumas’s father was a general in Napoleon’s army, who had fallen out of favor.  After his father’s death in 1806, the family lived in poverty.  Dumas worked as a clerk and went to Paris to find work in 1823.

Because of his stylish handwriting he got employed with the Duc d’Orléans, later King Louis Philippe. He also began working in theater and as a magazine publisher. By age 25, he had his first success as a playwright with “Henri III et Sa Cour” (1829), produced by the Comedie Francaise.  It was successful enough that Dumas went on to write additional plays. “La Tour de Nesle” (1832), his “The Tower of Nesle” is considered the greatest masterpiece of French melodrama.  He wrote constantly, producing a steady stream of plays, novels, and short stories.

Dumas wrote many interesting observations about the world during his life. Much can be found in his piece “Mes Mémoires.” Dumas also wrote several children’s stories, and a culinary dictionary.  He also did not shy away from collaborating with other authors or rewriting older stories.

Writing brought Dumas enormous fortune, but he spent money faster than he made it.  He produced some 250 books with his 73 assistants, especially with the history teacher Auguste Maquet, who worked independently.  His most successful novels contained vivid adventures with action, and bigger-than-life characters.  He took great liberty with the truth to achieve a good story.

His son, Alexandre Dumas fils, wrote several important novels including “La Dame aux Camélias,” the basis of Verdi’s opera “La Traviata.” Dumas’ life as a writer was filled years of traveling, and carousing. Some of his writings were “The Count of Monte-Cristo,” “The Man in the Iron Mask,” and “The Three Musketeers.” In a shorter piece, “Georges” (1843), Dumas examined the question of race and colonialism. The main character, a half-French Mulatto, leaves Mauritius to be educated in France, and returns to revenge for the affronts he had suffered as a boy.

Alexandre Dumas died in Puys, near Dieppe, on December 5, 1870.

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