The New International Encyclopædia/Dumas, Alexandre (père)

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The New International Encyclopædia, Volume VI Davioud - Ellery
Dumas, Alexandre (père)
3311260The New International Encyclopædia, Volume VI Davioud - Ellery — Dumas, Alexandre (père)

DUMAS, Alexandre, called Dumas Père (1802-70). The greatest French romantic novelist and the most universally read story-teller of the world, born at Villers-Cotterets, July 24, 1802. As a writer he is remarkable for great creative rather than for artistic genius. Dumas's father was a gallant general. Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie Dumas, who served Napoleon with distinction, but died in neglect in 1806. This general's father was a rich colonist of Haiti, Marquis Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie; his mother was a negress of Haiti, from whom the general took the name Dumas. His legitimacy is not clear. The novelist, Alexandre, inherited much from his negress grandmother, in both appearance and nature; much, too, from his marquis grandfather. The contrast and combination can be constantly noted in his novels. His boyhood was passed in Villers-Cotterets. His awkward age and calf-love are painted ingenuously in his Mémoires and in Ange Pitou. It was intended to train him for the Church; but he inclined at first to law and was apprenticed to a notary of Soissons, where he saw, in 1819, a play of Ducis (q.v.) that determined him to seek his fortune on the stage. He reached Paris in 1823, with 20 francs and hope for all his patrimony. He found a temporary livelihood as secretary in the household of the future King, Louis Philippe, and in 1829 was among the first to begin the romantic revolt on the stage in his Henri III. et sa cour. A stream of dramas followed that brought him notoriety and wealth, spent as soon as won. He appears to have been active in the Revolution of 1830; but proved a too ebullient republican to find favor in the royal household, and resigned his post. He now turned to fiction, and contributed to the newly founded and since famous Revue des Deux Mondes the first of his historical novels, Isabelle de Bavière, out of which there grew in his fertile brain a scheme for turning the whole history of France into a sort of human comedy that should "exalt history to the height of fiction," and let a romantic fancy play around the evidences of the past. The Chroniques de France that resulted from this idea are Dumas's best work. They have, indeed, no historic insight and no grasp of character; but they have a wonderful dramatic instinct to fuse and recast historic materials into chaplets of episodes that are by turns frolicsome and wild, extravagant, breathless, and impetuous, subordinating description to dialogue and everything to action, never failing to absorb the reader and to excite an intense curiosity. In their historical order these chronicles are: Le bâtard de Mauléon; Duguesclin; Isabelle de Bavière; La reine Margot; La dame de Montsoreau; Les quarante-cinq; Les trois mousquetaires (the best); Vingt ans après; Le vicomte de Bragelonne; Le chevalier d'Harmental; Une fille du régent; Joseph Balsamo; Le collier de la reine; Ange-Pitou; La comtesse de Charny: Le chevalier de Maison-Rouge; Les blancs et les bleus; Les compagnons de Jéhu; and La rose rouge—the whole forming a series of well-nigh a hundred volumes.

Like the writers of the sixteenth century, Dumas took his material where he found it, having barbaric ideas of literary property. Already in 1832 a well-founded accusation of plagiarism had forced him to travels, of which he has left a lively series of Impressions (consult Wormeley. Journeys with Dumas, Boston. 1902). It did not lead him to mend his ways, however. Volumes have been written about his 'novel factory,' of his purchase of work by unknown authors or translators, and of publishing under his name what he had not so much as read (consult Quérard's Les supercheries littéraires dévoilées. 1859). He was always ready to buy ideas; he was willing to buy novels and rewrite them; he also supplied ideas and let others do the mechanical work of composition; and in later life he may have been even less scrupulous: but none who claimed to share his honor as well as his profits ever did under their own names work like that which they claimed to have done for him, and we know that Dumas was as rapid and industrious a penman as he was a facile composer. No doubt he squandered his genius under the urgent demands of the press.

His best work was almost all done between 1843 and 1850—the inimitable Comte de Monte-Cristo; Les trois mousquetaires; Vingt ans après; La reine Margot; Les mémoires d'un médecin; Les quarante-cinq; Le vicomte de Bragelonne; and La tulipe noire. After that we catch only an occasional flash of genius, as in Les blancs et les bleus (1868). In one way or another Dumas is responsible for 208 somewhat closely printed volumes. For a generation he was the world's Scheherazade, doing more than all others together to give French fiction a cosmopolitan audience in the great middle class. His work brought enormous returns, but he was a phenomenon of thriftlessness. He became involved in many lawsuits over contracts signed with thoughtless levity. He built a palace, Monte Cristo, for 500,000 francs, in 1847, then sold it in 1851, and fled from his creditors in 1853. Then for nineteen years he became a pathetic wanderer in search of 'copy.' He visited England (1857), Russia and the Caucasus (1S58), and Italy (1860 and 1866). Last came four years of senile poverty, relieved by the son whose boyhood he had neglected and whose youth he had misguided. By him he was taken from the excitements and dangers of Paris in war time to Puys, near Dieppe, where he died on the day of its occupation by the Prussians, December 5, 1870. He was buried in 1872 at his boyhood's home in Villers-Cotterets. A uniform and nearly complete translation of Dumas's novels is published in Boston. Consult: Blaze de Bury, Alexandre Dumas sa vie, son temps, ses oeuvres (Paris, 1885); Wells, A Century of French Fiction (New York, 1898); Parigot, Le drame d’Alexandre Dumas (Paris, 1898); id., Alexandre Dumas père (ib., 1902); Spurr, The Life and Writings of Alexandre Dumas (New York. 1902).