Alan Paton Biography

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 antiapartheid 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 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.


(History of the World: The 20th Century)
ph_0111201617-Paton.jpg Alan Paton Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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 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,...

(The entire section is 2079 words.)

Alan Paton Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Much that matters in his writing stems from the fact that Alan Stewart Paton was born in 1903 in Pietermaritzburg in Natal, South Africa. He loved that local land as much as he loved books. He learned both passions, which figure prominently in his writings, from his father, James Paton, an immigrant from Scotland, and his mother, Eunice Warder James Paton, the daughter of English immigrants. His father was a deeply religious Christian and a strict authoritarian, so strict that his disciplinary practices provoked Paton to resist authoritarianism in any form.

Paton married Doris “Dorrie” Olive Francis in 1928, and they had two sons, David and Jonathan. Following Dorrie’s death in 1967, he married Anne Hopkins. After teaching chemistry and mathematics in high school and college, Paton worked as principal of the Diepkloof reformatory from 1935 until the publication of Cry, the Beloved Country, his first novel, written from the homesick perspective gained during a three-month tour of prisons in England and the United States.

Among the earliest voices for racial equality in South Africa, Paton helped create and vigorously promoted the Liberal Party during the 1950’s, actively opposing his country’s policy of apartheid. That opposition resulted in confiscation of his passport, eventual dissolution of the party, and the South African government’s banning of his beloved Defence and Aid Fund, which had provided legal fees for oppressed blacks. By the time of his death at age eighty-five, Paton had been honored throughout the world with international awards for his humanitarian work and honorary degrees in recognition of his writing from such prestigious universities as Harvard, Yale, and Edinburgh.

Alan Paton Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Alan Stewart Paton (PAT-uhn) was born in Pietermaritzburg, Natal, South Africa, on January 11, 1903. He attended high school at Maritzburg College, received a bachelor of science from the University of Natal in 1923 with distinction in physics, and was student representative to the first Imperial Conference of Students in London. He taught privileged youngsters mathematics and chemistry at Ixopo High School, Natal, from 1925 to 1928, then joined the staff of Maritzburg College in 1928. He married Doris Francis the same year; they had two children.

Stricken with enteric fever, he redirected his life and in 1935 became the principal of Johannesburg’s Diepkloof Reformatory for some four hundred delinquent African youths. He immediately instituted major changes to upgrade their quality of life, restore their dignity, encourage improved behavior, and provide job training and paid work opportunities. A decade later, in Cry, the Beloved Country (1948), a pleasant, young reformatory counselor proudly describes these enlightened policies. Debbie Go Home (1961; published in the United States as Tales from a Troubled Land, 1961) also recounts reformatory life. Success at Diepkloof earned Paton an international reputation for penal reform. Ineligible for military duty, he became the wartime chair of the combined Young Men’s Christian Association and Toc H War Services. In 1942, he was appointed to the Anglican Diocesan Commission to...

(The entire section is 526 words.)

Alan Paton Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Alan Paton’s literary creations are inseparable from South Africa and its politics. As Edward Callan so aptly states, the vision of his novels encompasses South Africa’s nationwide conflict “between black aspirations to human dignity and white fears for the loss of power and privilege.” His writings—most particularly Cry, the Beloved Country—speak to the heart in a simple, clear, dramatic way that cannot be ignored. They are intellectually honest, infused with a love of Africa, and exhibit a belief in the essential dignity of all humankind and a sadness at the suffering of a people and nation. They capture the human condition, looking uncompromisingly at desolation, despair, cruelty, violence, and fear yet...

(The entire section is 163 words.)

Alan Paton Biography

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Born on January 11, 1903, in Pietermaritzburg, Natal, South Africa, Alan Paton evolved as an eloquent spokesman against apartheid and a great...

(The entire section is 347 words.)

Alan Paton Biography

(Novels for Students)

Alan Paton is remembered as an exceptional writer, a passionate activist, and a compelling educator. He was born on January 11, 1903, in...

(The entire section is 439 words.)

Alan Paton Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Perhaps more a great humanitarian than a novelist, Alan Paton (PAT-uhn) nevertheless wrote highly acclaimed novels about racial problems in Africa. Born in Pietermaritzburg, Natal, he wrote out of lifelong familiarity with the land and its people, white and black.

Though always interested in literature, Paton first chose a career in science and became a science teacher in the school at the African village of Ixopo, which was later to figure in Cry, the Beloved Country.

In 1928 he married Doris Francis Lusted, who died in 1968 and was the subject of his For You Departed. He converted from Methodism to Anglicanism in 1930, and in 1935 he became head of a reformatory for delinquent boys and...

(The entire section is 254 words.)

Alan Paton Biography

(Novels for Students)
Alan Paton Published by Gale Cengage

Alan Stewart Paton was bom in Pietermaritzburg, Natal (now part of South Africa), on January 11, 1903. At the age of twelve, he entered...

(The entire section is 510 words.)