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A Week to Remember: Alexandre Dumas

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
French novelist and playwright, Alexandre Dumas

Alexandre Dumas was born on July 24, 1802. Dumas was a prolific novelist and playwright who wrote more than 100,000 pages during his life. He is best remembered today for historical adventure novels, including The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo.

Dumas’s father, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, had an illustrious career in the French military, rising to the rank of general at 31. His father's military and political connections helped Alexandre to get employment as a young man in the court of Louis-Philippe, Duke of Orléans. He wrote his first plays while in the Duke’s employ, and they were successful enough for him to begin writing as a full-time occupation.

In 1830, King Charles X was deposed in the July Rebellion, and somewhat unexpectedly, Louis-Philippe became king. As life returned to normal after the revolution, the modernization and industrialization of the French economy made it easier for Dumas to sell his writing. By the late 1830s, Dumas recognized that there was more money to be found in writing novels than in plays; there were several newspaper and magazine markets for serialized novels. Dumas published his first novel, a reworking of his early play Captain Paul, in 1838.

Dumas realized that there were more potential markets than he could keep up with by himself. To deal with the demand, he created a writing studio, a sort of prose factory. Several other writers did the historical research, created plots and characters, and wrote rough drafts, which were then polished and edited by Dumas into his own popular style. These authors were paid a flat fee for their work, but received no credit.

One of Dumas’s most important collaborators was Auguste Maquet, who wrote the first drafts of both The Three Musketeers (e-book | e-audio | print) and The Count of Monte Cristo (e-book | e-audio | print | audio) for Dumas to edit. Maquet co-wrote 18 novels with Dumas, and at one point, sued for credit and royalties. The court ruled in favor of Dumas, saying that "Dumas without Maquet would have been Dumas: what would Maquet have been without Dumas?”

4 books by Dumas

Whether or not he deserved all of the credit for the novels published under his name, Dumas was a hugely popular novelist. His novels were translated into several languages during his lifetime. Unfortunately, he was even better at spending money than he was at making it, and rarely financially secure. He was a reckless spender, and a notorious playboy, known to have had at least 40 mistresses and 4 illegitimate children.

One of those children followed in his footsteps. Alexandre Dumas fils (son), was also a novelist whose best-known work was the romance Camille (e-book | e-audio | print).

Dumas’s historical adventure novels are his best-known work, but he wrote in a wide range of genres. The Wolf Leader (e-book | e-audio | print) was one of the first werewolf novels, and Celebrated Crimes (e-book) was a multivolume series of essays on famous European criminals, a sort of precursor to the modern true-crime genre.

In the second half of his life, Dumas moved frequently throughout Europe. After Louis-Philippe was overthrown in 1848, Napoleon III (nephew of the more famous Napoleon Bonaparte) became President, and later Emperor. Napoleon was less fond of Dumas than Louis-Philippe had been, and Dumas moved to Belgium in 1851 to avoid both his creditors and political persecution.

In 1859, Dumas left Belgium for Russia. French was a second language for most members of the Russian nobility, and his novels were popular there. In 1861, after Victor Emmanuel II proclaimed the Kingdom of Italy, Dumas moved there and got involved in the campaign for Italian unification, even founding a pro-unification newspaper.

Unsurprisingly for so prolific a writer, all of this travel became material for Dumas. On his return to France in 1864, he published several travel books about his time in Russia and Italy.

Dumas was described as a charming and outgoing man, who could cheerfully talk at length on almost any subject, especially himself. While he came from an aristocratic background, his mixed-race ancestry—his grandfather had lived for some years in what is now Haiti, and his grandmother was one of the family’s slaves—meant that he frequently had to deal with racial discrimination. Even that, he seems to have done with surprisingly good humor and wit, as in his famous response when confronted by one racist: “My father was a mulatto, my grandfather was a Negro, and my great-grandfather a monkey. You see, Sir, my family starts where yours ends.”

When Dumas died in December 1870, the news of his death was largely overshadowed by the Franco-Prussian War. He was buried in the small town where he was born. In 2002, at the centennial of his birth, French President Jacques Chirac held a ceremony in which Dumas was re-interred in the Panthéon of Paris, where many of France’s most famous authors had been buried.

Also This Week

July 22, 1849

Emma Lazarus was born. Lazarus was a poet and social activist best remembered for her sonnet “The New Colossus.” The poem was written in 1883 as a donation to an auction of artistic and literary works, to raise money to build a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. The Statue was opened in 1886, but it wasn’t until 1903 that Lazarus’ poem was installed on the inner wall of the statue. “The New Colossus” is included in collections of Lazarus’s poetry (e-book | print); its best-known section (“Give me your tired, your poor...”) was set to music by Irving Berlin in his 1949 musical Miss Liberty.

July 25, 1894

Walter Brennan was born. Brennan was a character actor who frequently appeared as the sidekick in Westerns. When the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor was introduced in 1935, Brennan won three of the first five awards in the category. Brennan appears with Gary Cooper in two of his better-known films, both available for streaming at Hoopla, 1941’s Meet John Doe and 1942’s The Pride of the Yankees.

July 22, 1949

Alan Menken was born. Menken is a songwriter and composer, best known for his work on Disney animated musicals. He has won a total of eight Academy Awards for those films, winning both Best Score and Best Song for each of four movies—The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Pocahontas. He was also the songwriter for two seasons of the TV knights-and-damsels comedy Galavant.

July 24 is National Tequila Day

Tequila is a type of mezcal, a distilled alcoholic beverage made from the blue agave plant. Under Mexican law, mezcal can only be called tequila if it is made in a specific region of Mexico, made up mostly of the state of Jalisco. Tequila was first produced in the early 16th century, and the first mass-produced tequila was being made by around 1600. Chantal Martineau explores the history of the drink in How the Gringos Stole Tequila (e-book), and Ray Foley offers a comprehensive list of tequila cocktails, recipes, and facts in The Tequila 1000 (e-book).