BORN: 1903, Pietermaritzburg, Natal Province, South Africa
DIED: 1988, Durban, South Africa
NATIONALITY: South African
Cry, the Beloved Country (1948)
The Land and People of South Africa (1955)
Towards the Mountain (1980)
Journey Continued: An Autobiography (1988)
Save the Beloved Country (1989)
Alan Paton. Paton, Alan, photograph. AP Images.
Alan Stewart Paton was a South African writer and liberal leader. His novel Cry, the Beloved Country won him world acclaim for the insights it gave into South Africa’s race problem. As Martin Tucker commented in Africa in Modern Literature, ‘‘Paton is the most important force in the literature of forgiveness and adjustment.’’
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Youth in Politically Charged British Colony. Alan Stewart Paton (rhymes with Dayton) was born on January 11, 1903, in Pietermaritzburg in the Natal Province, a former British colony that is now part of the Republic of South Africa.
European immigration to South Africa began in 1652, much earlier than in other parts of Africa. Its mineral wealth made it a particularly attractive territory for the British Empire, which established dominance there over the native black population and another white European population, the Boers (descendants of Dutch settlers), in a series of wars spanning the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At the time of Paton’s birth, Great Britain had just cemented its power in the region after winning the second Boer War in 1902. The British fought the Boers for control of Transvaal and the Orange Free State. The two states had been annexed by Great Britain after the First Boer War in 1877, but enjoyed limited self-government until the British decided to take complete control. The war was unpopular even in Britain, where the military’s brutal actions in South Africa were viewed as naked imperialism. In 1910, the Union of South Africa became a dominion of Great Britain.
Paton the Teacher. From 1919 to 1922, Paton attended the University of Natal, from which he graduated with degrees in science and education. At this time, Paton began writing poetry and drama. In 1925 he became the assistant master at the Ixopo High School and, in 1928, joined the staff of Pietermaritzburg College. Paton was appointed principal of the Diepkloof Reformatory in 1935. The Diepkloof Reformatory just outside Johannesburg, had been administered as a prison for delinquent youths from the slums rather than an institution for their rehabilitation. Paton insisted that this defeated the purpose of the reformatory. He introduced reforms that enabled some of the young to regain their self-respect. His granting of weekend leave was considered revolutionary. To the surprise of some of his colleagues, most of the boys returned at the end of their leave.
The Rise of the Apartheid Government. Legal racial separation between the majority black population and the ruling white had existed to some degree since 1923, but in 1948, Boer-led political parties gained control of the government on the ‘‘apartheid’’ slogan that whites must remain masters of South Africa (‘‘apartheid’’ means ‘‘apartness’’ in Afrikaans, the language of the Boer South African population). The new apartheid government systematically repressed and terrorized the majority black population until its downfall in 1994. Paton retired from government service in 1948 and devoted his life to writing, lecturing on the race question, and organizing the Liberal Party of South Africa in opposition to apartheid.
Paton and his Controversial Best-Seller. It was in this environment that Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country was published. Cry, the Beloved Country made a tremendous impression outside South Africa and among the English-speaking citizens in the republic. The nationalist-minded Boers dismissed it as a piece of liberalistic sentimentality. It caused only a minor stir in the black African community where Paton was criticized for using stereotypes in depicting his black African characters. He was accused of approaching the black African characters from white, patronizing perspectives. This projected them either as the victims of violent and uncontrolled passions or as simple, credulous people who bore themselves with the humility of tamed savages in the presence of the white man.
Formation of the Liberal Party of South Africa. Cry, the Beloved Country had called for peace and understanding between races, but to Paton and those who shared his views, it was not enough for white liberals to preach race conciliation; they had to involve themselves actively in opposition to apartheid. Early in the 1950s, he took part in the formation of the Liberal Association, which later became the Liberal Party of South Africa (SALP). He was elected its president in 1953 and remained in this position until the government enacted a law making the party illegal. The SALP welcomed South Africans of all races in its ranks and sought to establish an open society in which one’s merit would fix the position of the individual in the life of the nation. It advocated nonviolence and set out to collaborate with the black Africans’ political organizations. Like most leaders of the SALP, Paton was criticized bitterly in the Afrikaans press for identifying himself with black Africans. The underlying fear was that he and his colleagues were creating potentially dangerous polarizations in the white community.
Continued Literary and Politic Activity. During the 1950s and 1960s, SALF gained a substantial following among both blacks and whites. In 1960, the government declared the party illegal. Some of the party’s leaders fled the country, while others were arrested and tried on conspiracy charges. Paton was spared arrest. The government did, however, seize his passport upon his return from New York where he accepted the Freedom House Award honoring his opposition to racism.
Paton continued writing during these tumultuous times, publishing the novel Too Late, the Phalarope in 1953 and the play Sponono in 1965. After a little less than ten years, the government returned Paton’s passport. That made it possible for him to undertake a world tour (1971) during the course of which he was showered with honors in America and Europe.
Paton died of throat cancer on April 12, 1988, at his home outside Durban, shortly after completing Journey Continued: An Autobiography. He was mourned as one of South Africa’s leading figures in the anti-apartheid movement. Shortly after his death, his widow, Anne (Hopkins) Paton, released a large portion of the contents of Paton’s study for the establishment of The Alan Paton Centre on the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of Natal. The university set aside space for this permanent memorial to Paton for future generations of writers and activists.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Paton's famous contemporaries include:
Ella Josephine Baker (1903-1946): Leading African- American civil rights activist who worked behind the scenes alongside Dr. Martin Luther King and several others.
Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965): Twice prime minister of the United Kingdom, this statesman and acclaimed orator was also a Nobel Prize-winning author.
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961): Famous expatriate writer whose name is synonymous with the Great American Novel.
Todd Matshikiza (1921-1968): South African jazz pianist, composer, and activist who was instrumental in apartheid resistance efforts and subsequently was banned (exiled) by the South African government.
Works in Literary Context
In assessing Paton’s work, Paton scholar Edward Callan compares the author to American poet Robert Frost. Paton’s art, says Callan, ‘‘is related to South Africa as Robert Frost’s is to New England. Both of these writers work within the framework of an external landscape where they know all the flowers and shrubs, birds and animals by their familiar names. As observers of the human inhabitants of these landscapes, both writers recognize the profound aspirations of human personality; and both communicate their insights in language that is fresh and simple, yet vibrant with meaning.’’
Protest Fiction. Because Paton was concerned primarily with racial injustice in South Africa, his work has come to be considered part of the tradition of protest fiction that includes the works of such writers as Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852), Upton Sinclair (The Jungle, 1906), and Richard Wright (Native Son, 1940). While there is no doubt that well-crafted protest novels can exert a huge impact on the public, critics tend to look down on protest fiction, even labeling it propaganda, because, they believe, the writer’s art is subjugated by the writer’s political message, and characters and plot tend to be less fully rounded than they are in other types of fiction. This point is debatable, but Paton’s literary reputation has suffered somewhat because of his political focus.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country highlights the many ways that the social and legal oppression of a racial or ethnic group harm both the oppressed and the oppressors. Other works that focus on this theme of oppression include:
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845), by Frederick Douglass. Perhaps the most famous of the American slave narratives, Douglass's life story highlights how being a slave and owning slaves transforms people.
Things Fall Apart (1959), by Chinua Achebe. The story of colonialism and its invasive and destructive impact on Nigerian tribal culture.
Once Were Warriors (1990), by Alan Duff. Maori cultural struggles are closely examined in the setting of urban New Zealand and by way of the impoverished, undereducated Heke family.
The Last Witchfinder: A Novel (2006), by James Morrow. Morrow's inventive novel focuses on the enormously destructive witch hunts of the European middle ages and how this persecution affected the lives of millions of women.
Works in Critical Context
Over an initial period of approximately fourteen years, Paton produced a body of work that critics first used to judge him as a writer. F. Charles Rooney in Catholic World, for one, lauded Paton’s skill as a writer and pointed favorably to his unwillingness to moralize in his first books. ‘‘In Too Late, the Phalarope, wrote Rooney, ‘‘Tante Sophie ... becomes such a real person to the reader that there is never a question of sermonizing.’’ In Tales from a Troubled Land, however, asserted Rooney, ‘‘Paton has unfortunately abandoned his story to profess his heart.’’
One of the earliest proponents of racial equality in his native South Africa, Paton came into the most favorable reviews, however, with his very first work, Cry, the Beloved Country.
Cry, the Beloved Country (1948). A landmark publication for its time, the novel follows the fate of a young black African, Absalom Kumalo, who, having murdered a white citizen, ‘‘cannot be judged justly without taking into account the environment that has partly shaped him,’’ as Edmund Fuller writes in his book Man in Modern Fiction: Some Minority Opinions on Contemporary American Writing. The environment in question is typified by the hostility and squalid living conditions facing most of South Africa’s nonwhites, victims of South Africa’s system of apartheid.
The novel won enthusiastic reviews from critics and elicited tears from readers. Cry, the Beloved Country, wrote Rooney, ‘‘is a great novel, but not because it speaks out against racial intolerance and its bitter effects. Rather, the haunting milieu of a civilization choking out its own vitality is evoked naturally and summons our compassion.... It is a great compliment to Paton’s genius that he communicates both a story and a lasting impression without bristling, bitter anger.’’
‘‘I have just finished a magnificent story,’’ wrote Harold C. Gardiner in a 1948 review. As the novel took up complicated issues, and ‘‘reduced to these simple, almost fabular terms, it was intelligible and it made an impact,’’ wrote Dennis Brutus in Protest and Conflict in African Literature. ‘‘The emotional impact of Cry, the Beloved Country is achieved, first of all and most consistently, by Paton’s stylistic understatement, by his use and reuse of a few simple, almost stilted, formal phrases,’’ explained Myron Matlaw in Arcadia.
‘‘Three artistic qualities of Cry, the Beloved Country combine to make it an original and unique work of art,’’ Edward Callan notes in his study Alan Paton. ‘‘First, the poetic elements in the language of some of the characters; second, the lyric passages spoken from outside the action, like the well-known opening chapter; and third, the dramatic choral chapters that seem to break the sequence of the story for social commentary, but which in fact widen the horizon of the particular segments of action to embrace the whole land, as well as such universal concerns as fear, hate, and justice.’’
Yet as Carol Iannone noted in American Scholar, ‘‘[a]fter initial widespread adulation, critics began to find fault with Cry, the Beloved Country, seeing it as sentimental and propagandistic, more a treatise than a work of art. The novel tends to survive these objections, however, because the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’’
Responses to Literature
1. While reading Cry, the Beloved Country consider what it means to get a good night’s sleep. What could interfere with that if you lived in a country where democracy did not rule?
2. After reading Cry, the Beloved Country consider the following passages and discuss the following related questions:
‘‘Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.’’ What in this comment by the narrator about his home country do you find striking? What does the wording remind you of, if anything? Why does the narrator seem to suggest discouraging loving the earth, or laughing too loudly, or getting too emotional about the water and birds of South Africa?
a. ‘‘Happy the eyes that can close.’’ How does this comment by the narrator connect with peace or peace of mind?
b. ‘‘I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find we are turned to hating.’’ What conflict does this comment by Reverend Msimangu point to?
c. ‘‘Who indeed knows the secret of the earthly pilgrimage? Who indeed knows why there can be comfort in a world of desolation?’’ What does Stephen Kumalo mean when he thinks this during his stay in Johannesburg? What is he trying to understand?
d. ‘‘For it is the dawn that has come, as it has come for a thousand centuries, never failing. But when that dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret.’’ How do these final thoughts by Kumalo connect to his earlier thoughts? What do you interpret is the ‘‘secret’’?
Alexander, Peter. Alan Paton: A Biography. Oxford University Press, 1994.
Callan, Edward. Alan Paton. Boston: Twayne, 1968, 1982.
Fuller, Edmund. Man in Modern Fiction: Some Minority Opinions on Contemporary American Writing. New York: Random House, 1958.
Gardiner, Harold C. ‘‘On Saying ‘Boo!’ to Geese,’’ and ‘‘Alan Paton’s Second Masterpiece,’’ in All Conscience: Reflections on Books and Culture Hanover House, 1959. pp. 108-12, 112-16.
Paton, Anne. Some Sort of a Job: My Life with Alan Paton. New York: Viking, 1992.
Catholic World (November, 1961) Charles F. Rooney, ‘‘The ‘Message’ of Alan Paton,’’ pp. 92-8.
English (1967) Martin Tucker, ‘‘Martin, Africa in Modern Literature: A Survey of Contemporary Writing.’’
World Literature Today (March, 1995) Robert L. Berner, ‘‘Alan Paton: a Biography.’’
Books and Writers. Alan (Stewart) Paton (1903-1988). Retrieved February 10, 2008, from http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/apaton.htm.
World Literature research Project. Alan Stewart Paton. Retrieved February 10, 2008, from http://collaboratory.nunet.net/goals2000/eddy/Paton/ Author.html.