Dumas, Alexandre (1802–1870)
Dumas, Alexandre (1802–1870)
The French novelist and dramatist commonly known as Dumas père, to distinguish him from his writer son (also named Alexandre Dumas), was born in Villers-Cotterêts, a small town in northern France, in 1802. Dumas's own colorful life reads like a novel. His father, a general in Napoleon's army, was born in Santo Domingo to the Marquis de la Pail-leterie and a black slave, whose family name he assumed when he enlisted. The death of the father he idolized before Dumas's fourth birthday left the family in dire financial straits. At fourteen, Dumas, who had little formal schooling, began working as a clerk for a local notary. Eventually, the theater lured him to Paris, where he obtained a position with the Duc d'Orléans in 1823. An ardent republican, he took part in France's revolutions of 1830 and 1848, and joined Italian republican Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1860. His renown as a dramatist and then as a historical novelist earned him immense wealth, but an extravagant lifestyle left him almost penniless at his death.
Dumas is one of the most prolific, popular, and perhaps underrated authors of all time, but interest in popular culture is attracting new critical attention to his work. His stories written intentionally for children generally first appeared in his own newspapers, Le Mousquetaire and Le Monte-Cristo ; they include La Bouillie de la Comtesse Berthe (1845), La Jeunesse de Pierrot (1854), Le lièvre de mon grand-père (1857), and adaptations of well-known fairy tales. E. T. A. Hoffman's dark, morbid story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King was transformed into a children's tale, titled Histoire d'un Casse-Noisette (1845), which inspired Tchaikovsky's famous ballet.
The works that children know best, however, are the popular historical novels he wrote for adults. Like those of Walter Scott, Dumas's novels were immediately adopted by young readers who were enthralled by this master storyteller. His exciting plots, fast-moving action, lively dialogue, and memorable characters had universal appeal. Generations of readers worldwide owe their first, indelible impressions of French history to Dumas's novels, the most popular of which are Les Trois Mousquetaires (The Three Musketeers ) (1844) and Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (The Count of Monte Cristo ) (1844-45). Les Trois Mousquetaires, a swashbuckling adventure tale that has become a children's classic, is the first novel in a trilogy about Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and D'Artagnan, who are legendary characters the world over, as is Edmond Dantès, wrongfully imprisoned for years in the Château d'If before enacting his delayed revenge as the Count of Monte Cristo. Few young people today read the integral text of Dumas's prodigiously long novels, especially in the English-speaking world where they have often been heavily abridged. A prime example is The Man in the Iron Mask, excerpted from the third novel in the Mousquetaire trilogy, Le Vicomte de Bragelonne, and published separately in English.
Born in the popular press, where they were serialized, Dumas's novels live on in the mass media of cinema and television. The Three Musketeers is one of the most remade stories in motion picture history. Contemporary teen audiences were deliberately targeted in films like The Musketeer (2001), with its martial arts choreography, and The Man in the Iron Mask (1998), with its casting of Leonardo DiCaprio in the dual role of Louis XIV and his twin brother.
See also: Children's Literature; Images of Childhood.
Hemmings, F. W. J. 1979. The King of Romance: A Portrait of Alexandre Dumas. London: Hamish Hamilton.
Stowe, Richard S. 1976. Alexandre Dumas père. Boston: Twayne.
Sandra L. Beckett
Alexandre Dumas (1803-1870), the prolific French author of plays, popular romances, and historical novels, wrote The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo.
Alexandre Dumas is generally called Dumas pèreto distinguish him from his illustrious son Alexandre (known as Dumas fils), who was also a dramatist and novelist. The son of a Creole general of the French Revolutionary armies, Dumas was brought up by his mother in straitened circumstances after his father's death. While still young, he began to write "vaudeville" plays (light musical comedies) and then historical plays in collaboration with a friend, Adolphe de Leuven. Historical themes, as well as the use of a collaborator, were to be permanent aspects of Dumas's style throughout his career.
After reading William Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, Friedrich von Schiller, and Lord Byron, and while employed as a secretary to the Duke of Orléans (later King Louis Philippe), Dumas wrote his first plays in 1825 and 1826. Others followed, with Henri III et sa cour (1829) bringing him great success and recognition. It seemed to the theatergoers of Dumas's time that here at last was serious theater which presented an alternative to effete neoclassical drama.
The Revolution of 1830 temporarily diverted Dumas from his writing, and he became an ardent supporter of the Marquis de Lafayette. His liberal activities were viewed unfavorably by the new king, his former employer, and he traveled for a time outside France. A series of amusing travel books resulted from this period of exile.
When Dumas returned to Paris, a new series of historical plays flowed from his pen. By 1851 he had written alone or in collaboration more than 20 plays, among the most outstanding of which are Richard Darlington (1831), La Tour de Nesle (1832), Mademoiselle de Belle-Isle (1839), and La Reine Margot (1845). He also began writing fiction at this time, first composing short stories and then novels. In collaboration with Auguste Maquet he wrote the trilogy: Les Trois Mousquetaires (1844; The Three Musketeers), Vingt Ans après (1845; Twenty Years After), and Le Vicomte de Bragelonne (1850). Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (1846; The Count of Monte Cristo) was also a product of this period.
Dumas had many collaborators (Auguste Maquet, Paul Lacroix, Paul Bocage, and P.A. Fiorentino, to name only a few), but it was undoubtedly with Maquet that he produced his best novels. He had assistants who supplied him with the outlines of romances whose original form he had already drawn up; then he wrote the work himself. The scale of his "fiction factory" has often been exaggerated. Although at least a thousand works were published under his own name, most were due to his own industry and the amazing fertility of his imagination. Dumas grasped at any possible subject; he borrowed plots and material from all periods and all countries, then transformed them with ingenuity. The historian Jules Michelet once wrote admiringly to him, "You are like a force of elemental nature."
Dumas does not penetrate deeply into the psychology of his characters; he is content to identify them by characteristic tags (the lean acerbity of Athos, the spunk of D'Artagnan) and hurl them into a thicket of wild and improbable adventures where, after heroic efforts, they will at last succumb to noble and romantic deaths. His heroes and heroines, strong-willed and courageous beings with sonorous names, are carried along in the rapid movement of the dramas, in the flow of adventure and suspenseful plots. Dumas adhered to no literary theory, except to write as the spirit moved him, which it did often.
Dumas's works were received with enthusiasm by his loyal readers, and he amassed a considerable fortune. It was not sufficient, however, to meet the demands of his extravagant way of life. Among his follies was his estate of Monte-Cristo in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, a Renaissance house with a Gothic pavilion, situated in an English garden. This estate housed a horde of parasitical guests and lady admirers who lived at the author's expense.
Dumas, who had never changed his republican opinions, greeted the Revolution of 1848 with enthusiasm and even ran as a candidate for the Assembly. In 1850 the Theâtre-Historique, which he had founded to present his plays, failed. After the coup d'état in 1851 and the seizure of power by Napoleon III, Dumas went to Brussels, where his secretary managed to restore some semblance of order to his affairs; here he continued to write prodigiously.
In 1853 Dumas returned to Paris and began the daily paper Le Mousquetaire. It was devoted to art and literature, and in it he first published his Mémoires. The paper survived until 1857, and Dumas then published the weekly paper Monte-Cristo. This in turn folded after 3 years.
In 1858 Dumas traveled to Russia. He then joined Giuseppe Garibaldi in Sicily, and in 1860 Garibaldi named him keeper of museums in Naples. After remaining there for 4 years, he returned to Paris, where he found himself deep in debt and at the mercy of a host of creditors. His affairs were not helped by a succession of parasitical mistresses who expected—and received—lavish gifts from Dumas.
Working compulsively to pay his debts, Dumas produced a number of rather contrived works, among them Madame de Chamblay (1863) and Les Mohicans de Paris (1864), which were not received with great enthusiasm. His last years were softened by the presence of his son, Alexandre, and his devoted daughter, Madame Petel. He died in comparative poverty and obscurity on Dec. 5, 1870.
A good introduction to the Dumas dynasty is André Maurois, The Titans: A Three Generation Biography of the Dumas, translated by Gerard Hopkins (1957). A. Craig Bell, Alexandre Dumas: A Biography and Study (1950), is a more serious and complete work. In a lighter vein is Herbert S. Gorman, The Incredible Marquis: Alexandre Dumas (1929). For a direct look at the source material, Jules E. Goodman, ed., The Road to Monte-Cristo: A Condensation from the Memoirs of Alexandre Dumas (1956), is recommended.
Dumas, Alexandre, My memoirs, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975, 1961.
Ross, Michael, Alexandre Dumas, Newton Abbot, Devon; North Pomfret, Vt.: David & Charles, 1981. Schopp, Claude, Alexandre Dumas: genius of life, New York: Franklin Watts, 1988. □
Born: July 24, 1802
Died: December 5, 1870
French author, playwright, and novelist
Alexandre Dumas, the French author of many plays, popular romances, and historical novels, wrote The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo.
Alexandre Dumas was born on July 24, 1802, near Soissons, France, the son of a Creole general of the French Revolutionary armies. His grandfather was from a noble family, and his grandmother had been a Dominican slave. Dumas's father died when he was four years old, leaving the family with very little money. Dumas was not a very good student, but his handwriting was noticeably beautiful, and he studied to work as a notary (a public officer who witnesses the signing of important documents and makes them official). He also began writing musical comedies and then historical plays in collaboration (working together with others) with a poet friend named Adolphe de Leuven. Historical subjects, as well as his ability to collaborate, were to be permanent elements of Dumas's work during his career.
Dumas then found work as a secretary to the Duke of Orléans (later King Louis Philippe, 1773–1850) in Paris, France. He read and attended the theater as much as he could during his time off. He was greatly influenced by the works of William Shakespeare (1564–1616) and wrote his first plays in 1825 and 1826. Others followed, with Henri III et sa cour (1829) bringing him great success and popularity. The revolution of 1830 slowed down Dumas's writing, and he became a strong supporter of the Marquis de Lafayette. His political activities were viewed unfavorably by the new king, his former boss, and he was forced to leave France for a time. A series of amusing travel books resulted from this period of exile.
When Dumas returned to Paris, he began writing a new series of historical plays. By 1851 he had written alone, or in collaboration with others, more than twenty plays. He also began writing fiction at this time, first short stories and then novels. In collaboration with Auguste Maquet he wrote Les Trois Mousquetaires (1844; The Three Musketeers ), Vingt Ans après (1845; Twenty Years After ), and Le Vicomte de Bragelonne (1850). Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (1846; The Count of Monte Cristo ) was also a product of this period.
Dumas worked with many collaborators who helped him with the outlines of his romances. The scale of his "fiction factory" has often been exaggerated. Although at least a thousand works were published under his own name, most were due to his own hard work and amazing imagination. Dumas's works were received with enthusiasm by his loyal readers, and he earned a lot of money. He could never earn enough to keep up with his spending habits, however. Among his problems was his estate of Monte-Cristo in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France, which attracted many hangers-on and female admirers who Dumas ended up supporting.
Dumas, who had never changed his political opinions, was pleased by the Revolution of 1848 and even ran as a candidate for the Assembly. In 1850 the Theâtre-Historique, which he had founded to present his plays, failed. After Napoleon III (1808–1873) took power in 1852, Dumas went to Brussels, Belgium, where his secretary managed to straighten out his affairs to a degree. Here he continued to write constantly.
In 1853 Dumas returned to Paris and began the daily paper Le Mousquetaire, which was devoted to art and literature. The paper survived until 1857, and Dumas then published the weekly paper Monte-Cristo. This in turn folded after three years. In 1860 he was named keeper of museums in Naples, Italy. After remaining there for four years, he returned to Paris, where he found himself deep in debt and regularly chased by debt collectors. He also had many women friends who expected—and received—expensive gifts from him.
Working hard to pay his debts, Dumas produced a number of works of lower quality, among them Madame de Chamblay (1863) and Les Mohicans de Paris (1864), which were not very successful. His unhappy last years were softened by the presence of his son, Alexandre, and his daughter, Madame Petel. (The elder Alexandre Dumas is generally called Dumas père to distinguish him from his son, known as Dumas fils, who was also a dramatist and novelist.) Dumas père died in poverty on December 5, 1870.
For More Information
Gallaher, John G. General Alexandre Dumas: Soldier of the French Revolution. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1997.
Hemmings, F. W. J. Alexandre Dumas: The King of Romance. New York: Scribner, 1979.
Schopp, Claude. Alexandre Dumas: Genius of Life. New York: Franklin Watts, 1988.