Alan Paton Biography

Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, his most famous work in support of racial tolerance and sensitivity, could not have been published at a more ironic time. Written in the waning days of the Second World War, the novel was published in 1948, just as supporters of apartheid took over South Africa and turned their belief in segregation and discrimination into law. In depicting the struggles of one Zulu family, Cry, the Beloved Country encapsulated the turmoil of South Africa as a whole, and the popularity of the novel made it a touchstone of the anti-apartheid movement. Though the face of the country would be forever changed by five decades of racial segregation, Paton’s novel ended with the main character in prayer—a prayer that Paton had for his conflicted homeland.

Facts and Trivia

  • Early in his life, Paton oversaw a reformatory school and instituted many progressive reforms during his tenure.
  • Paton founded the South African Liberal Party five years after the Nationalists took control of South Africa. The party’s primary goal was to end apartheid.
  • Paton was a proponent of nonviolent opposition to apartheid practices, placing him at odds with some South African activists who felt that violence was a necessary tool for freedom.
  • Besides two film versions, Cry, the Beloved Country has been adapted into a stage musical by noted playwright Maxwell Anderson and composer (and Bertolt Brecht collaborator) Kurt Weill.
  • The year following Paton’s death, the Johannesburg-based publication Sunday Times instituted an award in his name honoring nonfiction writing. One of its early recipients was Nelson Mandela.


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Article abstract: Through his writings and political work, Paton both foresaw and helped to effect fundamental changes in the shape of South African society.

Early Life

Alan Stewart Paton was born in Pietermaritzburg, Natal, South Africa, on January 11, 1903. His father James was a stern authoritarian from Scotland, and his mother Eunice was a mild schoolteacher of British ancestry. The family was of the Christadelphian faith, which Alan would leave as a young man. A good student, Alan attended the Berg St. Girls School, a coeducational facility, and accelerated quickly. Though timid and shy, he enjoyed performing and role-playing. In 1914, Paton earned a scholarship to attend Maritzburg College, one of South Africa’s oldest schools. He graduated at the age of fifteen with many prizes and honors.

In 1919 Paton entered Natal University College on an Education Department bursary to become a science teacher. While there, he published poems in the Natal Witness and the campus magazine, acted in plays, began a novel, and was active in the debating society. Paton developed a circle of friends known for their puns and clever repartee. He joined the rugby, tennis, and cricket clubs and was selected as a dapper dresser by a campus journal. Though short of stature—he never grew taller than 5 feet 7 inches—his pale blue eyes and straight brown hair made him a fairly attractive man.

While at the university, Paton abandoned Christadelphianism, thus distancing himself from his family. He became president of the Students Representative Council and in July 1924 was their delegate to an Imperial Conference in England. It was his first trip abroad, and it opened his eyes to how other nations regarded his country’s treatment of Africans, Indians, and other nonwhites.

Life’s Work

An interesting series of jobs helped Paton develop into a world-renowned author and social reformer. In 1925, fresh out of the university, Paton had great ambition but no clear path. He took his first position as a teacher in Ixopo, a village southwest of Pietermaritzburg. His three years there were challenging, and he was known more for his strict disciplinary practices than for his effectiveness as an instructor. In 1928, Paton accepted a post teaching at his alma mater, Maritzburg College. He joined a Christian men’s organization, Toc H, that focused on community and social service and soon becoming a senior administrator. Paton remained active with the organization through much of his life.

He continued writing poetry while aspiring to become a headmaster at the college. He befriended and deeply admired Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr, a rising politician who eventually became prime minister, and hoped to follow his mentor into politics as well. However, though Paton dropped many hints over the years, Hofmeyr, in his ascendance to higher and higher posts, never saw fit to offer preferment. In 1930, Paton enrolled for a master’s degree at Natal University College and joined the South African Institute of Race Relations, a small group of liberal thinkers addressing issues of race in the nation. His awareness of the injustices of South African society was growing steadily. Throughout his thirties, Paton wrote poems, short stories, and the beginnings of plays and novels that never reached fruition.

His career took a turn in 1935 when he applied for and was appointed headmaster at Diepkloof, a black prison that was being changed into a reformatory. Located outside of Johannesburg, Diepkloof was a shambles of squalor and filth when Paton arrived. With a clear mandate and strong pedagogical vision, he set about transforming Diepkloof into a civilized institution, using fairly radical theories that emphasized freedom over captivity and incorporated...

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personal psychology as a factor in the teacher-student relationship. Under Paton’s leadership, Diepkloof saw a great drop in the rate of escapes and the successful implementation of many innovative techniques. Paton wrote little at Diepkloof but gathered mental prototypes for characters that would later appear in his fiction. He considered his thirteen years at Diepkloof some of the happiest and proudest of his life.

In 1946, Paton began to foresee the end of his tenure at Diepkloof. The rise of the Nationalist Party to political power promised a rollback of the reforms that Paton had modeled so successfully. He traveled on sabbatical to visit prisons in Britain, Sweden, Norway, and the United States. He was also considering what his next career move would be.

It was in a hotel in Trondheim, Norway, that Paton penned the words that would become the first paragraph of Cry, the Beloved Country. The novel deals with a Zulu pastor, his son, and the ambitions and crimes that engulf them on their separate journeys from rural Ixopo to the great city of Johannesburg. It is a very South African novel, and the injustices of race and apartheid are central themes. Paton completed the novel during his travels. While in the United States in 1947, friends referred his manuscript to Charles Scribner’s Sons, a prestigious publishing house, and he returned to South Africa with a book deal. Cry, the Beloved Country was published in the United States on February 1, 1948, and subsequently in England and South Africa. Its reception was better than Paton or his publishers could have imagined. Paton was hailed for his astounding insights, his melodious prose, and his compelling story. The book went into its sixth printing within three months and was translated into nine languages within two years.

Paton’s life changed irreversibly. Income from the novel made him relatively rich. He decided to focus on writing, but a second novel was not immediately forthcoming. Over the next few years, Cry, the Beloved Country was adapted for both stage and screen. Paton traveled and spoke widely and continued his work with various organizations. In 1951, he began work on a new novel about a white police officer’s desire for an African woman. Too Late the Phalarope was published in 1953 to equally enthusiastic response. Paton’s income and reputation were now firmly established.

Meanwhile, the increasingly powerful Nationalists were passing more and more laws ensuring the separation of the races in South Africa. Angered by the injustice and idiocy of these laws, Paton turned to political activism. He helped to form and then assumed leadership roles in the Liberal Party, the only multiracial party in the country, devoting heart and soul to it for the next fifteen years. While never running for office himself, Paton was a ubiquitous spokesman for the cause. He met with many key public figures, including Albert Lutuli of the African National Congress and Senator Robert Kennedy of the United States. Always a moderate, Paton opposed violent means for political ends. He was hounded by the police, arrested and fined for political organizing in 1957, and deprived of his passport in 1960. Nevertheless, he spoke out for a unified society and worked with such groups as the Defence and Aid Fund to channel international financial support to liberal causes.

Paton continued to write. He produced numerous poems on political themes. Larger writings include The Land and People of South Africa (1955); Last Journey (1958), a play about the loyalty of explorer David Livingstone’s Zulu servants; a libretto for the musical Mkhumbane (1960), about an African suburb near Durban; Tales from a Troubled Land (1961), a collection of short stories; South African Tragedy: The Life and Times of Jan Hofmeyr (1965), a biography of his friend and mentor; Instrument of Thy Peace (1968), a collection of meditations; and Apartheid and the Archbishop (1974), a biography of Geoffrey Clayton, archbishop of Cape Town.

By 1963, Paton was gray-haired and slump-shouldered. Violent resistance was becoming more common, and the middle road advocated by Paton and the Liberal Party seemed to satisfy neither radical Africans nor conciliatory white people. Paton continued to travel and lecture as much as he could but was losing hope that the changes he envisioned would happen within his lifetime. The Long View, an anthology of his articles for the Liberal Party magazine Contact, was published in 1968.

In 1967, after a long battle with lung disease and emphysema, Paton’s wife Dorrie passed away. Though their marriage had not been without difficulty, he missed her tremendously and commemorated her in a unique volume of intimate recollections entitled For You Departed, published in 1969. During the course of his later life, Paton earned honorary doctorates in literature and divinity from twelve universities, including Yale, Michigan, and Edinburgh. He won many awards, including the American Freedom Award and The Sunday Times Book Award for Cry, the Beloved Country.

In 1974 Paton began his autobiography. The first half, recounting his life through 1948, was published in 1980 under the title Towards the Mountain. That same year, he unexpectedly started another novel, a historical narrative of South Africa in the 1950’s. Ah, but Your Land Is Beautiful (1981), the first of a projected trilogy, met mixed reviews, and Paton never wrote the sequels. His health began to fail him, and his pace slowed as he entered his ninth decade. Save the Beloved Country, a collection of lectures and writings, was published in 1987. Through the 1980’s, Paton worked assiduously to complete his autobiography. In March of 1988, a tumor was discovered in Paton’s esophagus. After an unsuccessful operation, he developed pneumonia. Paton died at his home on April 12, 1988, at the age of eighty-five. The second half of his autobiography, Journey Continued, appeared posthumously later that same year.


Throughout his life, Alan Paton wrote and spoke of the inevitable dissolution of the system of apartheid. Through his work with Toc H, the Students Christian Association, the Institute of Race Relations, the Liberal Party, Diepkloof Reformatory, and numerous other organizations, Paton put his beliefs into action. With the wealth received from his writings, Paton funded many projects and initiatives, and independently sponsored the welfare and education of many young Africans. He was also known to be a captivating speaker.

Though Paton himself never saw the dismantling of apartheid, his books served as agents for social change. Cry, the Beloved Country sold more than fifteen million copies in twenty languages by the time of his death; along with Too Late the Phalarope, it movingly informed readers around the world about the plight of South Africa’s ethnic majorities and thus fueled the international sentiment that eventually helped to transform South African society.


Alexander, Peter F. Alan Paton: A Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. This comprehensive biography of Paton draws deeply on Paton’s writings as well as interviews and correspondence with family, friends, colleagues, former students, and others. Alexander deftly interweaves Paton’s life with the larger threads of change in South African society. The style is unpretentious, though the accumulation of names, dates, and events is sometimes dense. Includes sixteen photographs, a bibliography, and a good index.

Callan, Edward. Alan Paton. Boston: Twayne, 1966. The first book of criticism of Paton’s work, written by an American friend and colleague. The volume is both sympathetic and scholarly. Callan effectively combines critical readings of Paton’s work with a deep understanding of the South African psyche and political system.

Gray, Stephen. Southern African Literature: An Introduction. New York: Harper & Row, 1979. An overview of the literature of southern Africa in the twentieth century. Gray is very conscious of the divisions and connections between white and nonwhite authors and the role of race in the shaping of literary tradition. Includes occasional references to Paton and his works.

Paton, Alan. Journey Continued. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1988. The second part of Paton’s autobiography traces his life from 1948 through 1968. Paton recounts the parallel strands of his later life: his development as a writer and his role in the political evolution of South Africa. Paton’s sincere and poetic style provides a smooth and engaging narrative.

Paton, Alan. Save the Beloved Country. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1987. A collection of Paton’s articles and essays expressing his vehement antiapartheid opinions. Includes articles on South African statesmen such as Albert Lutuli, Nelson Mandela, Hendrik F. Verwoerd, and Jan Christian Smuts.

Paton, Alan. The Long View. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1968. This is a collection of sixty essays written for the magazine Contact between 1958 and 1966. They include some of Paton’s most pointed and provocative writing, challenging apartheid and the consequent evils of South African society.

Paton, Alan. Towards the Mountain. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1980. The first installment of Paton’s autobiography recounts his life from birth through 1948. The memoir is especially valuable for its insights into Paton’s childhood, his work at Diepkloof, and the creative process that led to Cry, the Beloved Country.


Critical Essays