Fromkin, David, New Criterion
In 2004, at long last, the remains of Alexandre Dumas were interred in the Pantheon in Paris. The Pantheon, once a church in the Latin Quarter of the French capital, serves now as a secular temple honoring France's heroes and her famous dead. Burial in this national shrine has reunited Dumas with his lifelong friend Victor Hugo, whose remains have rested there for almost 130 years. The two novelists were born in the same year, 1802, each the son of a general in Napoleon Bonaparte's armies. Both became famous in their twenties. Both first won fame as dramatists and then went on to become novelists. Authors of some of the best-known, best-loved, and most widely circulated books of all time, they transcended all sorts of boundaries. Their works have been translated into almost every language imaginable, and their novels have become classics of world literature that continue to be read everywhere. When Dumas died, in 1870, Hugo wrote, "The name of Alexandre Dumas is more than French, it is European; and it is more than European, it is universal."
The tangled question of Dumas's family origins has been unraveled by a late-twentieth-century biographer, F. W. J. Hemmings. It appears that the author's grandfather, Antoine-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie, was a scion of the Norman squirearchy, lords of the manor since the sixteenth century, though otherwise undistinguished. Antoine-Alexandre, born 1714, bought and lived with a beautiful black slave girl in the French West Indies. Somewhere, sometime, perhaps from a previous master, she appropriated the surname "Dumas." Thomas-Alexandre, born 1762, the youngest of the four children of the union of Antoine-Alexandre and the slave girl, chose to use his mother's last name rather than his father's name and title, Marquis.
His hold on the title could have been an uncertain one. Though of aristocratic blood on his father's side, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas was a mulatto of illegitimate birth and bronze-colored skin. In the France of the ancien regime, his prospects in life would have been doubtful. His good fortune lay in his timing: the French Revolution of 1789 changed everything. It had swept away all rifles. It also opened up the officer corps of the army to new blood--to talent rather than birth--and Thomas-Alexandre, who had chosen a military career, rose rapidly through the ranks. By 1793 he had become a general. His promotions helped win the hand in marriage of the innkeeper's daughter in the town in France in which he was stationed, Villers-Cotterets, some fifty miles outside of Paris.
Alexandre Dumas, the future novelist, was born in Villers-Cotterets on July 24, 1802. His mother had worried--for they were prejudiced in those days--that he might be black. She rejoiced that he was born rose-white and with light-blue eyes. Only later in life did he darken into a mulatto hue. He was tall, and during the first half of his life he was considered handsome. In the last half his love of food turned him into the stout figure with whose picture we are familiar.
Dumas grew up with essentially no schooling. In those days schools were not provided by the government. With the aid of the parish priest, Dumas's impoverished and widowed mother did her best for him. When he left for Paris at the age of twenty to seek his fortune, he took away with him only two skills: a good knowledge of Latin, and superb penmanship. As it transpired, they sufficed. In those pre-typewriter days, his ability to write swiftly, legibly, accurately, and beautifully proved to be a valuable asset. He eventually found employment in the secretariat of the Duke of Orleans, one of the greatest nobles in France.
The young clerk rented a small apartment a short walk from the Palais Royal, where his offices were located. He then made overtures to the woman in the flat across the landing from him, and took her as his mistress. To their surprise, they had a child almost immediately. …