Alexandre Dumas (père) 1802–1870
(Full name Alexandre Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie) French novelist, dramatist, memoirist, historian, essayist, and short story and travel sketch writer.
Popular in his own time, Dumas père has remained a favorite storyteller among generations of readers throughout the world. His best-known works are the novels Les trois mousquetaires (1844; The Three Musketeers; or, The Feats and Fortunes of a Gascon Adventurer) and Le comte de Monte-Cristo (1845; The Count of Monte Cristo), adventure stories that abound with swordfights, lavish costumes, beautiful women, and narrow escapes. But these represent a minute portion of writings produced by this enormously prolific author, whose published novels, plays, stories, essays, and other works number in the hundreds. Due to his prolific output and the high entertainment value of his fiction—not to mention questions concerning his collaboration with other writers—critics have often judged Dumas harshly. Nonetheless, his work as a dramatist, which include the plays Henri III et sa cour (1829; Henry III and His Court) and Antony (1831), helped to usher in the Romantic era on the French stage.
Dumas's father, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, was the son of a marquis and a Haitian slave, and he took his family name from his African mother. After Thomas's death in 1806, Dumas was raised by his mother, an innkeeper's daughter named Marie-Louise-Elisabeth Labouret, in the town of Villers-Cotterêts, near Paris. He attended the local parochial school, and when he was older worked as a clerk but moved to Paris at the age of twenty, lured by the theater. Influenced by the dramatic works of Shakespeare, the poetry of Lord Byron, and the historical romances of Sir Walter Scott, Dumas collaborated with two others in writing a one-act play, La chasse et l'amour (1825). The young playwright used the pseudonym Davy, taken from the name of his paternal grandfather; but soon he was writing under his own name and began producing a series of important dramas that included Henri III and His Court, Antony, and Christine; ou Stockholm, Fountainebleau, et Rome (1830). During the Revolution of 1830, Dumas became interested in republican politics, and with the return of monarchy under King Louise Philippe, he decided to leave France in 1832. There followed several years of travel in Switzerland, Russia, Italy, and other parts of Europe, adventures Dumas began recording in Impressions de voyage (1833-37; The Glacier Land) and numerous other books of travel essays. In the 1840s, having returned to France, he embarked on the most fruitful decade of his life, years which saw the serial publication of The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, and dozens of other novels. He was so prolific, in fact, that critics began to raise questions concerning his use of collaborators such as Auguste Maquet. In 1845, French journalist Eugène de Mirecourt charged publicly that Dumas ran a "literary factory" in which he exploited the efforts of slave-like scribes. The slander case against Mirecourt, which Dumas won, was not the only harbinger of bad tidings as the 1840s came to a close. During those years of prosperity, Dumas spent money lavishly, and built a mansion dubbed the "Château de Monte-Cristo," which housed his many lovers, pets, and hangers-on. By 1850 he was bankrupt, and was forced to sell his home. Also in that year the Thèâtre Historique, which he had founded in 1847 to stage his own dramas, went bankrupt. Dumas fled to Brussels to avoid his creditors, and continued to write at a feverish pace, this time without the help of Maquet or other collaborators.
By 1853 his finances were back in order, and he returned to Paris, where his memoirs had been published to great success. He also founded and began writing for several journals with titles based on his most acclaimed novels, including Le mousquetaire and Le Monte-Cristo. As passionate in his personal life as he was in his work, Dumas had enjoyed a number of lovers and fathered several illegitimate children, including the future writer Alexandre Dumas fils in 1824. He was married briefly in the 1840s to actress Ida Ferrier and engaged in a celebrated affair with the American actress Adah Isaacs Menken in the late 1860s. His voluminous literary output continued, though slackened somewhat from its zenith in the 1840s, and he continued to travel widely. But his fortunes steadily declined, and when he died in his son's home at the age of sixty-eight, little remained of the riches Dumas had accumulated in his highly successful career.
Like his contemporary and rival Honoré de Balzac, Dumas set out to produce a vast body of fiction that would depict the width and breadth of a society, specifically France from the Middle Ages to his own time. In so doing, he produced his two best-known works, The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, as well as dozens—even scores—of other novels. (English-speaking readers may be disappointed to scan his list of published writings in vain for The Man in the Iron Mask: the book is actually a compilation taken from several of his works and did not exist as such during Dumas's lifetime.) In writing these "historical romances," as they were called, Dumas pioneered the genre of historical fiction, bringing together actual events and people with characters and incidents of his own creation. The Three Musketeers, for instance, is drawn from the quasi-historical memoirs of a figure called M. d'Artagnan; Dumas, for his part, drew the characters of D'Artagnan, as well as Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, out of those memoirs. He built their adventures around events involving King Louis XIII, Cardinal Richelieu, and other prominent personages of seventeenth-century France. Likewise The Count of Monte Cristo, a tale of unjust imprisonment and revenge, has its roots in an account from the Napoleonic era. Less well-known at the time, but more significant to modern critics because it offers insights into Dumas's views on his African heritage is Georges (1843; George; or the Planter of the Isle of France). Like Monte Cristo, it is a tale of revenge, with the important difference that it is Dumas's only story—and one of the few works of Western literature prior to the twentieth century—in which the hero is a mulatto. Another work little-known in his time, but more noted in the twentieth century, is his examination of a courtesan's career in "respectable" society, Fernande (1844; Fernande; or, The Fallen Angel). But such topical novels are the exception rather than the rule in an oeuvre that includes far more works depicting the French past of Medieval times and the Renaissance.
In his later years, Dumas produced an obscure novel destined to attract more attention after his lifetime: La terreur prussiene (1866; The Prussian Terror) sounded an alarmist warning regarding a militaristic Germany, which by the time of his death had invaded France. Interestingly, the work was first translated into English in 1915, when Britain was engaged in war with Germany on the battlegrounds of Dumas's homeland. Principal among Dumas's dramatic works is Antony, a tale of seduction, intrigue, and murder that shocked Paris audiences because it was set not in the classical past, but in contemporary France. Similarly, La tour de Nesle (1832; The Tower of Nesle) presents a scandalous plot involving sex and betrayal, this time set in medieval France. Also notable are several plays depicting lives and events surrounding monarchs, including Henry III and His Court, which vies with Hugo's Cromwell for the title of first play of the Romantic era; Christine, about Queen Christina of Sweden; and Charles VII chez ses grands vassaux (1831; Charles VII at the Homes of His Great Vassals). Dorothy Trench-Bonett, who produced the first English translation of the latter 160 years after its writing, referred to it as one of the first pieces of Western literature that offered a protest against the slave trade. Other than his novels and plays, the third significant component of Dumas's oeuvre is comprised of his travel writings and other essays, including his celebrated autobiography Mes mémoires (1852-54; My Memoirs), which did not appear in English until 1907.
Of all his works, Dumas's historical romances are best known in the English-speaking world, where he has enjoyed at least as great a following as he has among French readers. In France, he is most noted for his dramatic writings, which critics have long recognized as groundbreaking works. Not only was Antony innovative in its use of a contemporary setting for a classic tale of erotic intrigue, the staging of Henry III and His Court in February of 1829 made it the first Romantic play, although Hugo's Cromwell was actually written earlier. In spite of his contributions to French and world literature, however, in his own day Dumas often found himself the butt of harsh criticism. His work was routinely dismissed as mere entertainment of the lightest sort—hardly more substantial than The Wandering Jew and other works of his largely forgotten contemporary, Eugène Sue. Certainly Dumas ranked low in comparison to the more critically celebrated (though sometimes almost equally prolific) writers of his time such as George Sand, Balzac, and even Victor Hugo. In addition, the sheer volume of his works—not to mention his habit of padding his writing with excessive quotations and dialogue—made him appear more like a human writing machine than an artist. His astounding output, in fact, left him open to questions regarding the authorship of works produced under the name "Alexandre Dumas." But he proved in his later work that collaboration was not an absolute requirement for production on his part, and observers have pointed out that no joint authorship has ever been claimed for My Memoirs and any number of his widely praised non-fiction works.
The sheer endurance of his historical romances, which have seen countless film interpretations, seems in itself a sign of Dumas's singular power as a creative talent, and his reputation has steadily increased over time. Though his work has enjoyed scant critical attention in proportion to its sheer bulk, he remains a figure of interest. In the late twentieth century, critics have continued to investigate his lesser-known writings for their contemporary relevance. Of greatest interest, perhaps, has been the fact of his African ancestry and its influence on George and other works. This racial theme, along with various sexual aspects of Dumas's work, including androgyny (Christine), promises to provide decades' worth of fruitful critical inquiry.