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?”
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.
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.
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