Alan Paton 1903–1988
South African novelist, nonfiction writer, short story writer, autobiographer, biographer, dramatist, essayist, and poet.
The following entry presents criticism of Paton's work through 1989. For further information on his life and career, see CLC, Volumes 4, 10, 25, and 55.
One of the earliest proponents of racial equality in his native South Africa, Paton made considerable practical contributions to political life there. His place in the literature of social protest rests primarily on the novels Cry, the Beloved Country (1948) and Too Late the Phalarope (1953), both of which made him South Africa's most celebrated writer. In both his fiction and political writings Paton confronted the horrors of South African apartheid. His works have been admired particularly for their perceptive and sympathetic treatment of the exploitation of nonwhites by the elite ruling class and its tragic effects on both the exploited and South African society as a whole. John Romano has observed that Paton's "steady devotion to the ideal of the empathetic imagination in fiction … is an example of Paton's characteristic method. Individual human dilemmas are never swallowed up or diminished by the overarching political context of the story he is telling. Paton is relentless in his faith in the moral meaning of individual human experience."
Born January 11, 1903, in Pietermaritzburg, Natal, South Africa, Paton attended Maritzburg College and Natal University College, where he prepared for a career in teaching and began writing dramas and poetry, much of the latter comprising the collection Songs of Africa (1995). After graduating in 1922 with a B.S. degree and teacher's certificate, he returned to teach at Maritzburg College until 1935, when he was appointed principal of Diepkloof Reformatory for young African delinquents by Jan Hofmeyer, Paton's hero and subject of the biography Hofmeyr (1964). Within weeks he had changed the administration's principles from force, rebellion, and disorder to respect, trust, and internal commitment, which prompted him to write Freedom as a Reformatory Instrument (1948). Versions of the troubled youths appear in some of Paton's stories and in his play Sponono (1965). While touring prisons and reformatories in Europe and the United States in 1947, Paton wrote Cry, the Beloved Country, which brought him fame, financial security, and the Anisfield-Wolf Award for 1948. However, the novel was published in the same year that Prime Minister Daniel François Malan came to power and instituted apartheid; consequently Paton resigned from Diepkloof and devoted his life to writing and social action. In the early 1950s he was a founding member of the Liberal Party of South Africa, of which he later became president until the party was outlawed by the government in 1968. His moral commitment to opposing racism increased while working in the Anglican Church with Bishop Geoffrey Clayton, the subject of the biography Apartheid and the Archbishop (1973). After the publication of Too Late the Phalarope, Paton concentrated on completing several nonfiction books about contemporary South African politics and its problems, most notably The Land and People of South Africa (1955). In 1961 he issued the collection of short stories Tales from a Troubled Land, followed by several more nonfiction books. When his wife, Debbie, died in 1967, Paton wrote a tribute to her, For You Departed (1969). His humanitarian and literary efforts garnered Paton the 1960 Freedom House award and the 1977 International League for Human Rights prize, as well as several honorary doctorates from prestigious universities around the world. Paton's last novel, Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful (1981), followed the publication of the first installment of his autobiography, Towards the Mountain (1980). Paton died of throat cancer on April 12, 1988, at his home near Durban, just three weeks after he had completed the second part of his autobiography, Journey Continued (1988).
The bulk of Paton's writings are nonfiction works about political and social conditions in South Africa, and this theme also appears in much of his fiction, though always as background for his art. Cry, the Beloved Country is an episodic portrayal of racially-divided South Africa concerning the fate of Absalom Kumalo, a young African who, while committing a robbery, murders Arthur Jarvis, a wealthy, white social activist. The novel opens with Kumalo's father, a humble Zulu country pastor, who journeys to Johannesburg to search for his delinquent and missing son. When he finds his son, Steven Kumalo learns that Absalom has confessed to the murder and will be put to death. Meanwhile Arthur Jarvis Sr. reads his dead son's papers and speeches and acquires knowledge of both the hostile, squalid living conditions of most of South Africa's native peoples and his son's ideas about changing the apartheid system. Finally, after Absalom has been executed, both fathers meet and share mutual comprehension of each other's loss. Too Late the Phalarope relates the story of Pieter van Vlaanderen, a promising Afrikaner police lieutenant. When he is discovered violating the South African Immorality Act of 1927 by engaging in sexual intercourse with an African woman, Stephanie, he is imprisoned and shunned by his well-established and conservative family. According to South African social mores at the time, his shame spells the downfall of his family as well. Most of the stories in Tales from a Troubled Land relate sometimes tragic, sometimes comic episodes involving the inmates and staff at the Diepkloof reformatory. Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful recounts in the form of a pastichememoir the Defiance Campaign and the Liberal Party in the 1950s. The narrative comprises letters, reflections, character sketches, bits of dialogue, the transcripts of a trial, a summary of newspaper accounts and scraps of official documents juxtaposed or sewn together by a narrator who seems himself the possessor of a long, patient, irresistible historical vision. The story begins with the arrest of an Indian girl, Prem, for deliberately using a white library in violation of the color bar. When Prem defies the authorities, her struggle ignites the sudden imposition of new, strict apartheid measures and increasingly severe persecution of anti-apartheid forces. The novel concludes with the election to Prime Minister of a character who represents Dr. Henrik Verwoerk, which marks the beginning of the most bitter period in South African history. Towards the Mountain describes Paton's early years as an educator and his conversion from the white racist paternalism up to the publication of Cry, the Beloved Country; Journey Continued picks up from that point and focuses on his involvement with the Liberal Party through 1968, including a brief epilogue on the two decades preceding his death.
Paton's works generally have received little critical attention despite the widely favorable reviews of his first two novels. Still, Cry, the Beloved Country has continued to attract readers around the world, achieving an almost legendary status. Paton's other works have assumed their niche in the English literary canon as well, but rarely have attracted much commentary. Since the 1980s, however, a number of critical assessments have appeared, focusing on such aspects of Paton's works as the thematic universality of Too Late the Phalarope; environmental, liturgical, and spiritual influences in Paton's art; and the classical, epic, psychological, and religious dimensions of Cry, the Beloved Country. Most critics have tended to agree with Harold C. Gardiner, who has summarized an often-repeated critical commentary on Cry: "Its subject matter is as explosive as any that can be handled in today's fiction—the tensions between Negroes and whites—and yet there is not the faintest whisper of shrill propaganda; it deals plainly with the lusts of the flesh, and yet there is not the slightest suggestiveness; it plumbs deep into human suffering and punishment without a hint of moralizing or of maudlin sentimentality. It is a fine, indeed a great book." Others, however, have objected to the politics, or rather the absence of political responsibility, of Cry. A. A. Moyne has noted that Paton "believes like his chief character, Rev. Kumalo, that love is the solution to the problems of the oppressed blacks. It is doubtful how love would work, when fear rules the lives of both races in South Africa." Nevertheless, William Minter has concluded that Paton "will be remembered not for that fear, but for his cry for justice that continues to echo today."