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by Bamber Gascoigne

Alan (Stewart) Paton (1903-1988)


South African writer, founder and president of the Liberal Party (1953-68), which opposed apartheid and offered a non-racial alternative to government policy. The party was banned in 1968 by the Prohibition of Political Interference Bill, and Alan Paton was harassed by the racist government. On the other hand Paton's gentle Christian-liberal solution to the problems of South Africa was considered hopelessly inadequate by anti-apartheid activists. Also his friendship with the conservative Zulu leader Buthulezi, and his opposition to international sanctions, were criticized.

"And if I write it down, people may know that he was two men, and that one was brave and gentle; and they may know, when they judge and condemn, that this one struggled with himself in darkness and alone, calling on his God and on the Lord Jesus Christ to have mercy on him. Therefore when the other Pieter van Vlaanderen did not entreat, this one entreated; and when the other did not repent, this one repented; and because there is no such magic, this one, the brave and gentle, was destroyed with him." (from Too Late Phalarope, 1953)

Alan Stewart Paton was born in Pietermaritzburg (now the province of Kwa-Zulu-Natal), the son of James Paton, a civil servant, and Eunice Warder Paton. From his early childhood Paton witnessed the increase of white power at the expense of the rights of the black majority. Neither of his parents was highly educated. His father used to beat his sons, and it was this traumatic experience which later shaped his views on corporal punishment. Paton found the magic of literature at an early age, reading such writers as Walter Scott, Charles Dickens and Rupert Brooke. His parents' Christian faith and the prose of the King James Version of the Bible deeply influenced the themes of sound of his writings. Later, in the first volume of his autobiography, Paton described how the vision of John of Patmos, "of that world where there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying" filled his imagination.

Paton was educated at Maritzburg College and Natal University College. Both were white-only institutions. His first poem, 'To a Picture,' was published at the university's magazine in 1920. After graduating with a degree in physics, Paton worked as a teacher at the Ixopo High School for White Students and then at a high school in Pietermaritzburg. In Ixopo Paton fell in love with Dorrie Francis Lusted. Soon after she was widowed, Paton married her in 1928 and converted to Anglicalism; he was born a Methodist. Dorrie Francis died in 1967 of emphysema. His years with her Paton recorded in Kontakio For You Departed (1969; also: For You Departed). In 1969 Paton married his secretary, Anne Hopkins.

As the protége of the liberal politician Jan Henrik Hofmeyer, Paton was appointed in 1935 Principal of the Diepkloof Reformatory for young offenders. He held the post for thirteen years, and introduced controversial progressive reforms, which were undone after his resignment. However, this period was crucial for the formation of his political consciousness. In the mid-1940s Paton went on a tour of prisons and reformatories in Sweden, Norway, and in North America. Paton began writing his first and best known novel, Cry, The Beloved Country (1948) in 1946 in Trondheim, Norway, and finished the book in San Francisco on Christmas Eve, the same year. Since its publication, the assessment of Paton's novel has to some extent varied according to the unfolding political situation.

The story depicted the collective guilt and friendship across racial prejudices in the story of a black South African. Stephen Kumalo, an ageing Zulu minister, travels from his tribal village to Johannesburg, where he finds that his only son, Absalom, has murdered the only son of a white man, James Jarvis. Absalom is hanged but the tragedy connects these two men, and later they begin to work together. Paton's novel was inflenced by Laurens van der Post's less commercially successful In a Province (1934), but its story of a young man corrupted by a big city has been told by a number of writers all over the world. In South Africa the theme was called "Jim goes to J'burg".

When the book appeared, it was regarded by many white South Africans as either sentimental or almost revolutionary in the ideological atmosphere of the country. At the general election in 1948, the separatist National Party had come to power and Paton and other liberals were thrust into opposition. In the decades of open militancy from the 1970s, Paton's political views and biblical resonances were doubted by those black readers who were involved in the political struggle. Other than in South Africa the novel has always been more widely appreciated in the United States than elsewhere. Moreover, the linguistic errors in the translation from the Zulu language raised criticism.

Too Late the Phalarope (1953), Paton's next international success, explored racial and political inflexibility. Its opening lines echo the gloominess of a Greek tragedy: "Perhaps I could have saved him, with only a word, two words, out of my mouth. Perhaps I could have save us all. But I never spoke them." The protagonist is a white policeman, Pieter van Vlaanderen, who enters into an exploitative liaison with a young black girl, Stephanie. The story is partly narrated by Peter's aunt in rhetorical language: "But you must not think I judge, nor must you think I write as a child and ignorant. For I know there is time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing." Their fate reflects the effects of the National Party's obsession with racial purity – the South African Immorality Act explicitly prohibited sexual relations between the races.

Paton's short stories, Tales from a Troubled Land (1961), and his third novel, Ah, but Your Land is Beautiful(1981), also dealt with the racial theme. The novel was built on parallel life stories, letters, speeches, news and records in legal proceedings, and mixed fictional and real-life characters, such as Albert Lutuli and Henrik Vervoerd. "Paton attempts to imbue his characters with a humanity not expected of them. In this novel, for example, we meet the supposedly obdurate Afrikaner who contravenes the infamous Immorality Act (a law prohibiting sexual liaisons between black and white). There are other Afrikaners, too, who are led by their consciences and not by rules, and regulations promulgated by a faceless, monolithic parliament." ('Alan Paton (1903-1988)' by Jo E. Nel, in Post-Colonial African Writers, edited by Pushipa Naidu Parekh and Siga Fatima Jagne, 1998, p. 394)

With the financial success of Cry, the Beloved Counry, Paton could leave his work at Diepkloof, which was closed within a few years, and settle at Anerley, a seaside village in Natal. From the early 1950s Paton began to devote himself fully to the newly formed Liberal Party. His writer colleague Laurens van der Post, who had moved to England in the 1930s, helped it in many ways. Van der Post knew that the South African Secret Police was aware that he was paying money to Paton, but could not stop it by legal procedures. In late 1960s the party was disbanded. Before this Paton's passport was confiscated on his return from New York in 1960, where he had been presented with the annual Freedom Award. The passport was returned in 1970. In 1969 Paton became founding editor of Reality: A Journal of Liberal Opinion.

Mkhumbane, with music by Todd Matshikiza, opened in 1960 in Durban; Sponono had a Broadway production in 1964. A stage musical, Lost in the Stars, which was inspired by Cry, the Beloved Country, ran for about a year on Broanway from 1949 to 1950. In the first film version of the novel from 1951, produced and directed by Zoltan Korda, Canada Lee played Kumalo and Charles Carson was Jarvis. Sidney Poitier was cast as Theophilus Msimangu. At the premiere of the 1995 film version of the book, Nelson Mandela said: "Much what is portrayed in Cry, the Beloved Country evokes such strong emotions about the terrible past from which South Africa has just emerged. Cry, the Beloved Country, however, is also a monument to the future. One of South Africa's leading humanists, Alan Paton, vividly captured his eloquent faith in the essential goodness of people in his epic work. A goodness that helped manage this small miracle of our transition, and arrested attempts by the disciples of apartheid to turn our country into a wasteland." (Understanding Cry, the Beloved Country: a Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents by Ngwarsungu Chiwengo, 2007, p. 206)

Paton's other works include a study of his friend, the cabinet minister Jan Hofmeyr. He planned to write the biography of the poet Roy Campbell: "I think that his life is worth writing, partly because he held these extraordinary ideas about Jews, and Pommies, and Quakers, and Charlie Chaplin, but yet at the same time, could write such poetry". (Alan Paton Speaking, edited by Roy Holland, 2008, p. 56) Eventually, unable to bring himself to admire Campbell, he wrote the biography of the archibishop Geoffrey Clayton instead. Paton's autobiographies were Towards the Mountain (1980) and Journey Continued (1988). The second volume, completed before his death, begins in 1948 and ends in 1968. Paton died on April 12, 1988, in his home at Botha's Hill, near Durban, Natal.

For further reading: Books with the Man behind Them by Edmund Fuller (1962); Paton's "Cry, the Beloved Country" by Sheridan Baker (1968); Alan Paton: A Bibliography by Bea Lentel (1969); Alan Paton by Edward Callan (1982); "Cry, the Beloved Country": A Novel of South Africa by Edward Callan (1991); Alan Paton by Peter Alexander (1994); Alan Paton: A Biography by Peter F. Alexander (1994); 'Alan Paton (1903-1988)' by Jo E. Nel,' in Post-Colonial African Writers, edited by Pushipa Naidu Parekh and Siga Fatima Jagne (1998); A Literary Friendship: Alan Paton and Neville Nuttall by Jolyon Nuttall (2001); Understanding Cry, the Beloved Country: a Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents by Ngwarsungu Chiwengo (2007); Alan Paton Speaking, edited by Roy Holland (2008); 'A Collection of Letters by Alan Paton,' in African Literary Manuscripts and African Archives by Bernth Lindfors (2020).

Selected works:

  •  Cry, The Beloved Country, 1948
    - Itke, rakastettu maa (suom. Jouko Linturi, 1950)
    - Films: 1951 (also titled African Fury), prod. London Film Productions, dir. by Zoltan Korda , screenplay by Alan Paton, featuring Sidney Poitier, Canada Lee, Charles Carson, Joyce Carey; 1995, prod. Alpine Pty Limited, dir. by Darrell James Roodt, screenplay by Ronald Harwood, starring Richard Harris, Tsholofelo Wechoemang, James Earl Jones, Charles S. Dutton
  • Lost in the Stars, 1950 (with Maxwell Anderson)
    - Film 1974, prod. Cinévision Ltée, dir. by Daniel Mann, screenplay by Alfred Hayes, featuring Brock Peters, Melba Moore, Raymond St. Jacques, Clifton Davis, Paul Rogers
  • Too Late the Phalarope, 1953
    - Liian myöhään vesipääsky (suom. Jouko Linturi, 1954)
  • The Land and People of South Africa, 1955
  • South Africa in Transition, 1956
  • Hope for South Africa, 1958
  • The People Wept, 1958
  • The Last Journey, 1959 (drama)
  • Debbie Go Home, 1960
    - Painu kotiin Debbie ja muita kertomuksia (suom. Timothy Binham, 1985)
  • Mkhumbane, or Village in the Gully, 1960 (musical)
  • Tales from a Troubled Land, 1961
  • Sponono, 1962 (drama, with Krishna Shah)
  • Hofmeyr, 1964 (abridgement by Dudley C. Lunt, 1971)
  • Spono, 1965 (with Krishna Shah)
  • The Long View, 1967 (edited by Edward Callan, 1968)
  • Instrument of Thy Peace, 1968 (photos. by Ray Ellis)
  • Kontakio For You Departed, 1969 (also: For You Departed)
  • D.C.S. Oosthuizen Memorial Lectures. Number One, 1970
  • Case History of a Pinky, 1972
  • Apartheid and the Archbishop: the Life and Times of Geoffrey Clayton, Archbishop of Cape Town, 1973
  • Knocking on the Door: Shorter Writings, 1975 (selected and edited by Colin Gardner)
  • Towards the Mountain, 1980
  • Ah, but Your Land is Beautiful, 1981
    - Oi, miten kaunis maa (suom. Eva Siikarla, 1983)
  • Federation or Desolation, 1985
  • Beyond the Present: The Story of Women for Peace, 1976-1986, 1986
  • Diepkloof: Reflections of Diepkloof Reformatory, 1986 (writings compiled & edited by Clyde Broster)
  • Journey Continued: An Autobiography, 1988
  • Save the Beloved Country, 1989
  • Songs of Africa: Collected Poems, 1995
  • Lost City of the Kalahari, 2005 (edited and introduced by Hermann Wittenberg)
  • The Hero of Currie Road: Complete Short Pieces, 2008
  • Race Relations in Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country, 2009 (by Dedria Bryfonski, book editor)
  • Alan Paton: Selected Letters, 2009 (edited and introduced by Peter F. Alexander)
  • Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country, 2010 (new ed.; edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom)

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