Dumas, the Prodigious: A Profile of Alexandre Dumas

Article excerpt

WRITERS AND WRITING debuted in October 1997 with the promise of portraits of writers past and present. What better time to examine the creative life of author Alexander Dumas than when a new Hollywood version of The Man in the Iron Mask, with the latest teen heartrob cast in the central role, carries the 19th-century author's work to yet another generation.

The nineteenth century has surely given the world more prolific writers than any other, but none perhaps was to prove more productive than the grandson of a French marquis and a black slave: Alexander Dumas. His collected works run to something over three hundred titles, two of which--The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo--have been internationally beloved since their initial publication some 150 years ago.

Dumas' life was quite as extraordinary and outsized as his literary output. He was born on July 24, 1802, in Villers-Coterets, a small town to the north of Paris, to a general in Napoleon's army, also named Alexander, and the daughter of a local hotelkeeper. His father died when Dumas was only four. General Dumas, having fallen out of favor with Napoleon--not being sympathetic with Bonaparte's imperial ambitions--was dead at 40, leaving no pension or any other means of support for his family. (Napoleon was not of a forgiving nature.)

Dumas' formal education was patchy, to say the least. His mother, older sister, and a neighbor, widow of an army surgeon, taught him to read and write. Fortunately, as it would turn out, young Alexandre developed a very handsome, florid, and highly legible handwriting. An athletic youth, he spent more of his adolescence in the forest near his home, hunting and fishing, than at his books studying with a local abbe who ran a private school in the town.

When he was 16, Dumas acquired two friends who were to have a determining effect on his life. Vicomte Adolphe Ribbing de Leuven, the son of a Swedish nobleman recently moved to Villers-Cotterets, yearned to be a playwright and shared his ambitions and interests with young Dumas. At about the same time, Dumas also became friendly with a youthful officer of the hussards, Amedee de La Ponce, who was highly cultivated and fluent in both German and Italian. In no time, de La Ponce was teaching young Dumas Italian and encouraging him to read both the classics and more recent fiction. Dumas eagerly absorbed the learning and interests of his two new friends. Although he shortly became a clerk at a local notary, he devoted much of his spare time to working with de Leuven on a play.

Thanks to a recommendation from General Foy, a comrade in arms of his late father and now a deputy, and to his own splendid handwriting, Dumas found himself appointed as a clerk in the offices of the duc d'Orleans (who later became King Louis-Philippe) in Paris. Fortunately for him, his immediate superior, noting the young man's interest in writing, told him if he had literary ambitions, it was incumbent on him to start reading and rereading the giants of the past: Aeschylus, Shakespeare, and Moliere. After absorbing those great works, he should move on to the study of Euripedes, Seneca, Racine, Voltaire, Schiller, Terence, Plautus, and Aristophanes. If the novel interested him as a form, then the young man must read Homer, Virgil, Dante, gradually progressing to more modern authors such as Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper, Byron, Victor Hugo. Daunted but not the least discouraged, Dumas undertook this ambitious reading program with all the energy and drive that were to characterize his entire life.

But at the same time, he pursued his interest in the theater by attending as many plays as he could and making friends--industriously networking as it were--in the Paris theater and social world. Tall--six and a half feet--blond, blue-eyed, and well built, Dumas had an exuberant charm and verve that aided him greatly in his social ventures. His personal charm also endeared him to a young washerwoman, who shared the same landing in the modest apartment building where he had found lodging. …