Alan Paton is best known for his novel Cry, the Beloved Country (1948), a searing account of the inhumanity of apartheid that is marked by a lyrical love for his native South Africa. Published in New York by Scribner’s without advance publicity, it became an instant best-seller—the first edition was sold out on the first day of publication. Reviews were laudatory, praising not only the novel’s human message but also its beautiful language. Paton was hailed as a major new novelist and as a political voice of extraordinary moral authority. His novel would eventually be translated into twenty languages and sell more than fifteen million copies.
As Paton’s biographer, Peter F. Alexander, demonstrates, Paton’s novel came at precisely the moment when the world was becoming aware of the injustice of apartheid. In the late 1940’s, the Afrikaner-dominated National Party had taken power in South Africa and was determined to enforce a rigid separation of the races and to promulgate policies that ensured white dominance of the political and economic system. Paton’s biography parallels the twentieth century history of his country. His moral growth and politics—which seemed, for much of his life, out of kilter with his surroundings—have come to appear, since the election of Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s president, prophetic of his country’s potential for reform.
Paton was born in 1903 in Natal province. His father, James, had emigrated from Scotland and found a position as a court stenographer. James Paton seems to have been a man of frustrated ambitions. He wrote competent but pedestrian poetry and never rose above his first job. He was bitter and took his anger out on his children. He beat all of them. He sometimes beat his wife. He was jealous of his children’s accomplishments, never attending their prize ceremonies or sports matches. He was mean and greedy, always eating the best things at the table while his children looked at him with envy and hatred. He was prudish about sex, although he was clearly attracted to young women and may have had assignations with some of them. He belonged to a small Christian sect, the Christadelphians, pacifists strictly focused on Christ’s second coming.
As the oldest child, Alan often bore the brunt of his father’s rages. Yet something in James’s Christianity appealed to Alan, and he seemed able to forgive, if not love, his father. His younger brother Atholl rebelled, beating up and ridiculing their father as soon as he became old enough to exert his strength. Alan’s sister, Dorrie, remained a Christadelphian, and later a coolness developed between her and Alan when he renounced the creed in favor of the Anglican Church. Alan and Atholl were also estranged, for the younger but stronger Atholl also beat up Alan, an incident that neither brother was ever able to forget.
An able student, Alan early gave promise of surpassing his father’s position in life. A keenly sensitive young man, he may have had some sympathy for his stymied father—although Alexander’s biography presents no evidence of it. Paton pursued a teaching career, but he also wanted to write and to achieve political success. He was a proponent of what was often called in the late nineteenth century “muscular Christianity.” Paton was much influenced by an older friend, Railton Dent, a kind of father figure who helped him to see Christianity as an active religion, vitally committed to improving this world as a way of keeping faith with the eternal world of salvation to which every Christian aspires.
Paton liked to think of himself as an inspiring and well-liked teacher. This is how he presents himself in his autobiographies. His biographer ably demonstrates, however, that many of James Paton’s unfortunate traits manifested themselves in his son. Alan Paton beat students mercilessly. A group of them were so incensed at his whippings that they conspired to waylay him. He escaped their retribution by accident.
Given the painful experiences with his father, what was Paton thinking when he beat boys? It was not unusual at this time to believe that beating instilled discipline. Did Paton think, however, that his father’s beatings had disciplined him? They certainly had not had that kind of influence on his brother Atholl. Alexander is strangely incurious about this apparent mean streak in Paton. The biographer is perhaps hindered from speculating because Paton himself did not question why he beat students. Indeed, Paton minimized this aspect of his teaching, even though it was foremost in the minds of the Paton students whom Alexander interviewed. It is possible, as...
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