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Alexandre Dumas | Biography

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Alexandre Dumas was a beloved playwright and novelist of the Romantic period with a legendary larger-than-life personality. Dumas was born on July 24, 1802, in Villers-Cotterêts, France, to Marie-Louise Labouret and General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas.

Dumas's father, born in 1762 in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), was the son of a nobleman and a slave. In 1786 Thomas-Alexandre enlisted as a private in the army under his mother's name, Dumas. Nicknamed "Black Devil," he worked his way up to general in Napoleon's army and died in 1806.

Relying on help from friends, Dumas's widowed mother struggled to finance an education for young Alexandre. Dumas preferred the outdoors anyway, and at age 14, his formal education ended without the benefit of studying history or literature. Dumas fell in love with theater during a local production of Hamlet and began reading literature and writing in earnest.

In 1822 Dumas went to Paris to work as a scribe in the household of the Duke of Orléans, future King Louis Philippe, as a way to break into theater as a playwright. His most famous plays were produced in the late 1820s and early 1830s and were well received by the public:

  • Henri III et sa cour (1829)
  • Napoléon Bonaparte (1831)
  • Antony (1831)

His dramas turned Dumas into a celebrity in Paris. On the opening night of Antony, the usually reserved audience mobbed Dumas with hugs and kisses, even cutting off pieces of his jacket as souvenirs. With the success of his plays, Dumas helped feed the public's appetite for romanticizing the recent past, a shift from classical themes set in ancient times.

It was his serialized historical novels, however—starting with The Three Musketeers in 1844—that made Dumas a household name throughout France and much of Europe. The genre had been made popular by Sir Walter Scott in the 19th century, but French authors such as Balzac, Hugo, and Vigny held more appeal for elite readers. Dumas's accessible storytelling brought historical novels to the masses.

The genesis of Three Musketeers was an idea brought to him by his collaborator, Auguste Maquet, about King Louis XIII, Queen Anne, Cardinal Richelieu, and the Duke of Buckingham. Their research turned up a rare book by Gatien de Courtilz de Sandras called Memoirs of M. D'Artagnan: Captain-Lieutenant in the First Company of the King's Musketeers (1700, 1704) from which they borrowed episodes and the characters Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. Maquet sketched out scenes, and Dumas added dialogue and description. Following its publication, Dumas wrote four more serialized historical novels:

  • The Count of Monte Cristo (1844–45)
  • Twenty Years After (1845)
  • The Vicomte de Bragelonne (1848–50)
  • The Black Tulip (1850)

By today's standards and tastes, Dumas's plays and novels might be considered melodramatic. They are historically inaccurate and populated by many underdeveloped characters. Still, his writing is as heavily laced with irony as Cervantes's masterpiece Don Quixote (1605, 1615), and in his heyday, Dumas was one of the most celebrated authors in France. He supplied his audience with a steady stream of action, adventure, and vivid historical settings.

Dumas also wrote children's stories, memoirs, and even a culinary dictionary. Although he made a fortune several times, Dumas spent it all and more, saying, "I can keep everything but money. Money unfortunately always slips through my fingers." Eventually fleeing to Russia and Belgium to escape creditors, he continued writing and publishing.

Of the many women in his life, Dumas married only one, actress Ida Ferrier, in 1840. He fathered several children, including a son, also named Alexandre Dumas (born 1824), who became a successful writer as well. Their names are followed by père (father) and fils (son) to differentiate them.

Dumas died on December 5, 1870, at his son's home in Puys, France. In 2002 his body was relocated to the Panthéon in Paris to rest with the literary heroes of France. An unpublished manuscript, The Last Cavalier, was discovered in the 1980s and published in 2005.

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