Alexandre Dumas is generally called Dumas pèreto distinguish him from his illustrious son Alexandre (known as Dumas fils), who was also a dramatist and novelist. The son of a Creole general of the French Revolutionary armies, Dumas was brought up by his mother in straitened circumstances after his father’s death. While still young, he began to write “vaudeville” plays (light musical comedies) and then historical plays in collaboration with a friend, Adolphe de Leuven. Historical themes, as well as the use of a collaborator, were to be permanent aspects of Dumas’s style throughout his career.
After reading William Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, Friedrich von Schiller, and Lord Byron, and while employed as a secretary to the Duke of Orléans (later King Louis Philippe), Dumas wrote his first plays in 1825 and 1826. Others followed, with Henri III et sa cour (1829) bringing him great success and recognition. It seemed to the theatergoers of Dumas’s time that here at last was serious theater which presented an alternative to effete neoclassical drama.
The Revolution of 1830 temporarily diverted Dumas from his writing, and he became an ardent supporter of the Marquis de Lafayette. His liberal activities were viewed unfavorably by the new king, his former employer, and he traveled for a time outside France. A series of amusing travel books resulted from this period of exile.
When Dumas returned to Paris, a new series of historical plays flowed from his pen. By 1851 he had written alone or in collaboration more than 20 plays, among the most outstanding of which are Richard Darlington (1831), La Tour de Nesle (1832), Mademoiselle de Belle-Isle (1839), and La Reine Margot (1845). He also began writing fiction at this time, first composing short stories and then novels. In collaboration with Auguste Maquet he wrote the trilogy: Les Trois Mousquetaires (1844; The Three Musketeers), Vingt Ans après (1845; Twenty Years After), and Le Vicomte de Bragelonne (1850). Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (1846; The Count of Monte Cristo) was also a product of this period.
Dumas had many collaborators (Auguste Maquet, Paul Lacroix, Paul Bocage, and P. A. Fiorentino, to name only a few), but it was undoubtedly with Maquet that he produced his best novels. He had assistants who supplied him with the outlines of romances whose original form he had already drawn up; then he wrote the work himself. The scale of his “fiction factory” has often been exaggerated. Although at least a thousand works were published under his own name, most were due to his own industry and the amazing fertility of his imagination. Dumas grasped at any possible subject; he borrowed plots and material from all periods and all countries, then transformed them with ingenuity. The historian Jules Michelet once wrote admiringly to him, “You are like a force of elemental nature.”
Dumas does not penetrate deeply into the psychology of his characters; he is content to identify them by characteristic tags (the lean acerbity of Athos, the spunk of D’Artagnan) and hurl them into a thicket of wild and improbable adventures where, after heroic efforts, they will at last succumb to noble and romantic deaths. His heroes and heroines, strong-willed and courageous beings with sonorous names, are carried along in the rapid movement of the dramas, in the flow of adventure and suspenseful plots. Dumas adhered to no literary theory, except to write as the spirit moved him, which it did often.
Dumas’s works were received with enthusiasm by his loyal readers, and he amassed a considerable fortune. It was not sufficient, however, to meet the demands of his extravagant way of life. Among his follies was his estate of Monte-Cristo in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, a Renaissance house with a Gothic pavilion, situated in an English garden. This estate housed a horde of parasitical guests and lady admirers who lived at the author’s expense.
Dumas, who had never changed his republican opinions, greeted the Revolution of 1848 with enthusiasm and even ran as a candidate for the Assembly. In 1850 the Theâtre-Historique, which he had founded to present his plays, failed. After the coup d’état in 1851 and the seizure of power by Napoleon III, Dumas went to Brussels, where his secretary managed to restore some semblance of order to his affairs; here he continued to write prodigiously.
In 1853 Dumas returned to Paris and began the daily paper Le Mousquetaire. It was devoted to art and literature, and in it he first published his Mémoires. The paper survived until 1857, and Dumas then published the weekly paper Monte-Cristo. This in turn folded after 3 years.
In 1858 Dumas traveled to Russia. He then joined Giuseppe Garibaldi in Sicily, and in 1860 Garibaldi named him keeper of museums in Naples. After remaining there for 4 years, he returned to Paris, where he found himself deep in debt and at the mercy of a host of creditors. His affairs were not helped by a succession of parasitical mistresses who expected—and received—lavish gifts from Dumas.
Working compulsively to pay his debts, Dumas produced a number of rather contrived works, among them Madame de Chamblay (1863) and Les Mohicans de Paris (1864), which were not received with great enthusiasm. His last years were softened by the presence of his son, Alexandre, and his devoted daughter, Madame Petel. He died in comparative poverty and obscurity on Dec. 5, 1870.
A good introduction to the Dumas dynasty is André Maurois, The Titans: A Three Generation Biography of the Dumas, translated by Gerard Hopkins (1957). A. Craig Bell, Alexandre Dumas: A Biography and Study (1950), is a more serious and complete work. In a lighter vein is Herbert S. Gorman, The Incredible Marquis: Alexandre Dumas (1929). For a direct look at the source material, Jules E. Goodman, ed., The Road to Monte-Cristo: A Condensation from the Memoirs of Alexandre Dumas (1956), is recommended.