The following is the Best Article of 2021 from The JAPOS Bulletin: The Newsletter of Journalists, Authors, and Poets on Stamps, Whole Number 181 (Spring 2021) as voted by the members. JAPOS is a study unit of the American Topical Association. Click here to learn more.
The Dumas Family on Stamps of Haiti
By James E. Byrne
Readers today are unlikely to connect the writers Alexandre Dumas père (1802-1870) and Alexandre Dumas fil (1824-1895) with Haiti, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic era. Indeed, readers today are unlikely to have even read The Three Musketeers (1844) or La Dame aux camélias (1853), preferring instead the 1921 film with Douglas Fairbanks to a tedious slog through nineteenth-century prose or a fine recording of La Traviata. Collectively, however, the lives of four generations of the Dumas family are perhaps worthy of a BBC mini-series.
Students of literature distinguish between the two writers with the same name as Alexandre Dumas père (father) and Alexandre Dumas fil (son) rather than as “senior” and “junior.” Linguists have also suggested that the Dumas name was not an inherited family surname, but a reference to the status of the mother and grandmother of the two writers as a slave – Marie-Céssette Dumas (du mas; “from the farm”). Biographers and literary historians agree, however, that the two generations which preceded Dumas père were influential in shaping the familial context in which each writer developed.
Marquis Antoine-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie (1714-1786) descended from a family of nobility which had fallen on financial hard times. In the eighteenth century, careers in the church or the military were socially acceptable for impecunious young noblemen, and Antoine-Alexandre and his brother Charles chose the latter. It was military service which sent the two brothers to what is now known as Haiti, a French Caribbean possession which did not become independent until 1804. Both brothers resigned from the military and became part of the plantation culture of the region. Antoine-Alexandre purchased Marie-Céssette Dumas, a personal slave of African origin reputed to be of some beauty, and by her sired a son, ThomasAlexandre Davy de la Pailleterie (1762-1806). Under the law at that time, the son of a slave was a slave regardless of the race of the other parent. When Antoine-Alexandre took Thomas-Alexandre with him to France in 1776, after selling his Haitian possession, including the slave by whom he sired the son, the status of Thomas-Alexandre was resolved. French law did not recognize slavery and the son became a freeman. By seeing to it that his son received a good education and by using his military and social connections, Antoine-Alexandre was also able to pave the way for his illegitimate son’s entry into the military. In the lives of just these two men, there is enough material for an engaging historical romance – faded nobility, the military, exotic settings, illicit sex, illegitimacy, betrayal, social intrigue, and family loyalty.
In 1935, Haiti issued a set of three stamps on the occasion of a visit of a French delegation to Haiti recognizing the accomplishments of three generations of the Dumas family. The three stamps with a common design (Scott 335, 336, C10) which paid two surface postage rates and an air mail rate depicted General Dumas, Dumas père and Dumas fil. Although the design using three panels in a single unified frame was not unusual, the subjects chosen made an interesting trio. One was born a slave without rights of citizenship; two were born out of wedlock; and all three attained fame in France, not Haiti. The issue was perhaps of more political than postal value for the Caribbean nation in its dealings with France.
In 1961, Haiti issued a set of six stamps (Scott 472-74, C177-C179) once again honoring the Dumas family. The lowest denomination in the set depicted the birthplace of General Dumas with a background map showing its location in Haiti. Because he was educated and the son of a nobleman with military connections, Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie had advantages not typically open to a person of Afro-Caribbean descent, and it was in the military that he adopted his mother’s name, becoming Thomas-Alexandre Dumas. He rose to the rank of general by age 31 and with his promotion to the General-in-Chief of the Army of the Pyrenees became the highest ranking officer of African ancestry in Europe. In spite of his distinctive service in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, he fell from favor with Napoleon in 1800, and on his return to France was captured by Italian forces and imprisoned. When he was released, his health was ruined, and he died in poverty in 1806.
General Dumas’ wife, Marie-Louise Élizabeth Labouret, the daughter of an innkeeper, kept the family going and was an especially important figure in keeping the family history alive in her son, the child who would become the writer Alexander Dumas père, who was only four-years-old when his father died. She also encouraged his voracious reading and made sure that he was educated in spite of the lack of funds for formal schooling. The father’s fame, moreover, opened doors for the son, who was able to use his education in law to enter the service of the Duke d’Orleans, the future King Louis-Philippe.
The 10th February 1961 Haitian set contained three stamps commemorating best-known romantic novels of Alexandre Dumas père, The Three Musketeers (1844) its sequel Twenty Years After (1845) and The Count of Monte Cristo (1844-45), but none for his dramatic works. Before focusing on romantic fiction, Dumas père wrote sensational, melodramatic romantic plays which appealed to audiences in the 1820s and 1830s but have not earned the respect of literary critics or modern audiences. He turned to romantic pseudohistorical fiction as a way of supporting his lavish lifestyle, producing over 300 works. Modern literary critics recognize their appeal as popular action fiction but do not recognize them as fiction of quality because of their shallow characters and plots which are improbable and too heavily reliant on coincidence. The reputation of Dumas père has also suffered because of the way in which he produced so many pieces. In order to produce fiction at a rate which would support his lavish life, Dumas père hired assistants and collaborators, the most famous of whom was Auguste Maquet. It is claimed that Maquet wrote the original drafts of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo which Dumas père then embellished and edited. However, supporters of the reputation of Dumas père dismiss Maquet as a literary hack who merely assisted his employer and the controversy continues today.
The 1961 Haitian set also contained stamps showing father and son together with the French and Haitian flags behind them and a stamp for what critics generally agree is the most important work of Dumas fil. Dumas fil, like his grandfather, was illegitimate, the son of an affair between Dumas père and Marie-Laure-Catherine Labay, a dressmaker. Dumas père took the son away from his mother and made sure that he was well educated, but the experience influenced the writings of Dumas fil, who wrote frequently about morality, family values, marriage, and tragic women. His plays Le Fils naturel (1858; The Natural Son) and Un Père prodigue (1859; A Prodigal Father) were clearly rooted in his relationship with his father, and La Dame aux camélias (1848), upon which Giuseppe Verdi based his opera La Traviata, has a strong connection to his own mother’s experience as the woman who was separated from her family. Of the two Dumas writers, Dumas fil was certainly the more serious, and modern literary critics credit his influence in the emergence of the problem play as a genre.
Today, the Dumas family is still of interest and two of the romantic novels of Dumas père continue to be known at least by title and by classic films and television mini-series. The Three Musketeers has been the basis of at least eleven films with the earliest dating to 1914. The Count of Monte Cristo has at least six film versions with the earliest filmed in 1908. The works of Dumas fil have not attracted the same attention by filmmakers, but Verdi’s La Traviata continues to pack opera houses around the world. Dumas family members, and especially Dumas père, have also been featured on the stamps issued by several countries, but the two Haitian issues are of special interest because they draw attention to four generations of a family and invite a critical examination of familial influence in literature.
Some Other Stamps Referencing La Traviata (The Woman Who Strayed)
Ireland 1991 depicts the “brilliant party” which is seen as the curtain rises on Act One.
Nicaragua 1975 and Australia 1961 both celebrate Dame Nellie Melba as tragic heroine Violetta whilst Canada 1980 shows Emma Albani in the role, Belgium 1991 Clara Clairbert and Moldova 2007, Anastasia Dicescu.
Canada 2006 shows Leopold Simoneau and wife Pierrette Alarie as Alfredo and Violetta (La Traviata being suggested by the rose motif).
San Marino 2001 also shows a stage scene between Violetta and Alfredo, singing the tender love duet. “Amami, Alfredo”.