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Alexandre Dumas - Writer - (1802 - 1870)

Alexander Dumas - Mixed-Race - WriterDespite Alexandre Dumas' success and aristocratic connections, being racially mixed would adversely affect him all his life.

Alexandre Dumas was one of the most prolific French writers of the 19th century. His grandfather was a Marquis and his grandmother Marie-Céssette Dumas, a black slave, who died shortly after the birth of his father Thomas-Alexandre Dumas.

Thomas became the celebrated mulatto general who distinguished himself in service with Napoleon in many campaigns. General Dumas married Marie-Louise Elizabeth Labouret and in 1802 she gave birth to their son, Alexandre Dumas, who would become France's most commercially successful author.

In 1806 after being refused a pension by Napoleon who disliked his independent spirit, General Dumas died leaving a four year old Alexandre and his mother impoverished.

Unable to provide her son with much in the way of education, the young Marie-Louise told Alexandre stories of his father's brave military deeds during the glory years of Napoleon. This is what probably spawned his vivid imagination for adventure and heroes.

As a young man Alexandre worked as a notary's clerk and in 1823 at the age of twenty went to Paris to find work. Due to his elegant handwriting he secured a position with the powerful Duc d'Orléans -- later King Louis Philippe.

In 1824 Alexandre fathered an illegitimate son called Alexandre Dumas fils, whose mother, Marie-Catherine Labay, was a dressmaker. Alexandre Dumas fils would also go on to become a great writer.

Alexandre began his writing career in 1819 but his earliest efforts were unsuccessful, however he soon learned his craft well enough to become a master story teller. He began to write effectively with collaborators, trying everything from melodramas, vaudeville-type sketches and plays, to novels, children's books, and travel books.

In 1829 Alexandre had his first success as a playwright with Henri III et Sa Cour produced by the Comedie Francaise. It was a huge success and Alexandre went on to write additional plays, of which La Tour de Nesle (1832, The Tower of Nesle) is considered the greatest masterpiece of French melodrama. He wrote constantly, producing a steady stream of plays,
novels, short stories and even found time to publish some obscure magazines.

The lifting of press censorship in the 1830s gave rise to a rapid spread of newspapers and everyone began to read serial novels. In 1838 Alexandre produced his first true serial novel Captain Paul, a quick rewrite of a play. Hence began his development of the historical novel. Between 1844-45, he wrote his two most famous historical adventure novels, The Three
and The Count of Monte Cristo. They brought him an enormous fortune which he spent as fast as he made it.

Alexandre’s life was as adventurous as the heroes of his books. He travelled extensively across Europe and is said to have had a string of mistresses. In 1846, he took his son to Spain and North Africa. He took part in the revolution of July 1830, caught cholera during the epidemic of 1832, and travelled in Italy to recuperate. He married his mistress Ida Ferrier, an
actress, in 1840, but he soon separated after having spent her entire dowry. With the money earned from his writings, he built a fantastic Château Monte Cristo on the outskirts of Paris.

Despite Alexandre Dumas' success and aristocratic connections, being racially mixed would adversely affect him all his life. He was not known to define himself as a black man, however one quote exists of him referring to his black heritage when an arrogant white man dared to say: ‘And I hear you actually have Negro blood in you!’ ‘Yes,’ said the witty writer; ‘my father was a mulatto, his father a Negro, and his father a monkey. My ancestry began where yours ends!’

Alexander did however examine the question of race and colonialism, in 1843, he wrote a short novel, Georges that addressed some of the issues of race and the effects of colonialism. The main character, a half-French mulatto, leaves Mauritius to be educated in France, and returns to avenge himself for the affronts he suffered as a boy. His work was also popular amongst the Black population in 19th-century America, some say because in The Count of Monte-Cristo, the falsely imprisoned Edmond Dantès, could be read as a parable of emancipation.

Whether he considered himself a black man or not, racist attitudes impacted Alexandre Dumas' rightful position in France's history long after his death on December 5, 1870 from a stroke.

Alexandre was buried in the town where he was born at Villers-Cotterêts cemetery and remained there until November 30, 2002, when under orders of the French President, Jacques Chirac, his body was exhumed. In a televised ceremony, his new coffin, draped in a blue-velvet cloth and flanked by four men costumed as the Musketeers: Athos, Porthos, Aramis and D'Artagnan, was transported in a solemn procession to the Panthéon of Paris, the great mausoleum where French luminaries are interred.

In his speech, President Chirac said: 'With you, we were D'Artagnan, Monte Cristo or Balsamo, riding along the roads of France, touring battlefields, visiting palaces and castles -- with you, we dream.' In an interview following the ceremony, President Chirac acknowledged the racism that had existed, saying that a wrong had now been righted with Alexandre Dumas enshrined alongside fellow authors Victor Hugo and Voltaire.

The honour recognized that although France has produced many great writers, none have been as widely read as Alexandre Dumas. His stories have been translated into almost a hundred languages, and have inspired more than 200 motion pictures.

Alexandre Dumas' home outside of Paris, the Château Monte Cristo, has been restored and is open to the public.

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