Learning from the Late Greats: Alexandre Dumas edition

Alexandre Dumas is the comeback king of French literature, the popular novelist who dared his detractors to make his race an issue and survived the bloodbath of Napoleon’s rise to power and outlasted his own reputation for profligacy and womanizing.  Celebrated from the moment his first play was brought into the public (at the tender age of twenty-seven) until he died (aged sixty-eight), and perhaps even more so today (with more than 200 feature films adapted from his works), Dumas stands in for the epitome of success, or what we perceive as success, when it comes to self-published writing.

Dumas began with the stage, and his early profitability as a playwright left him financially settled enough to write full-time.  And when he began to write full-time, he slipped directly into writing novels and nonfiction, most notably his travelogues and his posthumously published Grand Dictionnaire de cuisine (released in 1873).  Many of his works were produced and published in an oddball or nontraditional fashion.  But this is all old news.  What you may not know––what I didn’t know until I dug into my Norton anthologies this last week––is how absolutely fierce this fellow was.

Alexander Dumas [père] (1802-1870) / Alexandre Dumas

Take the (possibly apocryphal) story in which he faced down the condescension of a particularly loathsome aristocrat by owning his heritage: “My father was a mulatto,” he said, “my grandfather a Negro, and my great-grandfather a monkey.  You see, sir, that my family starts where yours ends.”*  He was also keen to own the fact that his mother was a humble innkeeper’s daughter.  Given his rampant popularity among the elite, not just in France but in Belgium and Russia and Italy (where he sheltered from the threat of Napoleon’s displeasure), we must assume that his readers were willing to transcend a few of their (misguided) proprieties in order to lose themselves in the worlds embodied within his works.  That is, they got past and over all the fiddly bits, and the politics––and ultimately, got over themselves—because they were transported by truly superior craftsmanship.

You may have guessed my takeaway points for the week already:

1) Own it.  Bring it.  Fight for your place in the sun.  Too often we writers surrender to the fear of our own inadequacies, and our voices are lost in the general clamor of a hundred thousand thousand other writers and media content producers out there.  But know this: you have a right to be heard, and not just that—you have something to say that is worth hearing.  And sometimes, what you have to say might be countercultural, as was Dumas’ witty repartee with his aristocratic detractors.  Other times, you might have something to say that’s a little less like a firebrand and a little more like a spring-fed creek or a salty splash of ocean spray.  All of it is beautiful.  All of it needs to be said, and needs to be heard.  Your ideas live in conversation with the ideas of others, and if you seek to start or enter these conversations with unapologetic grace and authenticity, then the world will be enriched.

2) Flee to Belgium when you need to.  Or rather: know when to retreat.  Dumas’ removal from France was motivated by something more powerful than just a simple need to kick back and re-establish healthy boundaries––Bonaparte had a nasty habit of killing off people who were a little too honest about his doings—but I think it goes without saying that Dumas picked his time well.  He rode out imperial disfavor and was able to return to Paris some six years before his death.  His sense of timing was always impeccable, and not just in his travels; he knew when to take up a new project, and when to let a long-lasting one go.  So: the plays.  So: the novels.  So: the independent newspaper (appropriately name L’Indipendente) he founded and ran during his Italian exile.**  Whether you’re looking to dodge a dictator or simply take a few deep breaths to figure out who you are again, value and protect your means of retreat.  I encourage you to think of ‘retreat’ not just as a hypothetical or abstract term, but as a concrete time and place.  (I will not write or take phone calls or read emails or chip away at my work-work on Saturday afternoons, for example.  Saturday afternoons are for me and for one particular little park near my home.)  There’s been a resurgence in popular respect for introversion (see Susan Cain’s Quiet for a far more excellent and thorough discourse), but even the most outgoing and energetic extrovert needs the security of a physical as well as emotional retreat.

Last week I looked to Jane Austen for a few pointers.  The week before, I delivered a few tidbits of wisdom in the vein of Johannes Gutenberg.  Now Dumas has had a moment to shine.  But what about next week?  Stick around for the penultimate author in my series of late great self-publishing entrepreneurs!

If you have any comments, reflections, or suggestions for this new series, I’d love to hear them.  Drop me a line in the comments box, and watch this space on Wednesdays in 2015 as I blog my way into better acquaintance with these legendary figures of self-publishing!

KellyABOUT KELLY SCHUKNECHT: Kelly Schuknecht is the Executive Vice President of Outskirts Press. In addition to her contributions to the Outskirts Press blog at blog.outskirtspress.com, Kelly and a group of talented marketing experts offer book marketing services, support, and products to not only published Outskirts Press authors, but to all authors and professionals who are interested in marketing their books and/or careers. Learn more about Kelly on her blog, kellyschuknecht.com.

*It is also worth noting, I think, that Dumas’ father, Thomas-Alexandre, must have been truly a figure of interest quite apart from his famous son (and famous grandson, since one of Dumas’ sons also became a rather popular novelist).  Thomas-Alexandre was born a slave, and became the first man of Afro-Antilles origin to become a general in the French army, and the first man of color to reach the rank of general-in-chief when he served as such in the Pyrenees.  He was taken prisoner for two years, and died of cancer.  All of his exploits were his own doing; he achieved all of them long after breaking with his father, the marquis Alexandre-Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie.

**I must beg ignorance when it comes to Dumas’ numerous love-affairs; I have no idea if his astute professional boundaries had private parallels.

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