Alan Paton Paton, Alan (Vol. 106) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."

Biographical Information

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).

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Meditation for a Young Boy Confirmed (short stories) 1944
Cry, the Beloved Country (novel) 1948
Freedom as a Reformatory Instrument (nonfiction) 1948
Christian Unity: A South African View (nonfiction) 1951
South Africa Today (nonfiction) 1951
Too Late the Phalarope (novel) 1953
The Land and People of South Africa (nonfiction) 1955; also published as South Africa and her People, 1957; revised editions, 1965, 1972
South Africa in Transition [with Dan Weiner] (nonfiction) 1956
Hope for South Africa (nonfiction) 1959
Tales from a Troubled Land (short stories) 1961; also published as Debbie Go Home: Stories, 1961
Hofmeyr (biography) 1964; abridged edition as South African Tragedy: The Life and Times of Jan Hofmeyr, 1965
Sponono [with Krishna Shah] (drama) 1965
Civil Rights and Present Wrongs (nonfiction) 1968
Instrument of Thy Peace: The Prayer of St. Francis (nonfiction) 1968; revised edition, 1982
The Long View (nonfiction) 1968
For You Departed (memoir) 1969; also published as Kontakion for You Departed, 1969
Apartheid and the Archbishop: The Life and Times of Geoffrey Clayton, Archbishop of Cape Town (biography) 1973
Knocking on the Door: Shorter Writings (essays) 1975
Towards the Mountain (autobiography) 1980
Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful (novel) 1981
Journey Continued (autobiography) 1988
Songs of Africa: The Collected Poems of Alan Paton (poetry) 1995

Harold C. Gardiner (essay date 13 March 1948)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "On Saying 'Boo!' to Geese," in his In All Conscience: Reflections on Books and Culture, Hanover House, 1959, pp. 108-12.

[In the following essay, first printed in 1948 in America magazine, Gardiner commends Paton's artistic treatment of racial tensions in Cry, the Beloved Country, especially in comparison to contemporary trends in fiction.]

At the risk, perhaps, of sounding like a proper Bostonian, I want to raise a standard to which I think all critics ought to be willing and eager to repair. I'd like to start a movement or found an organization for the Cessation of Adulation Heaped on Authors (generally Young Authors) Because They Write in a...

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Harvey Breit (essay date 20 November 1949)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Alan Paton," in his The Writer Observed, World Publishing Company, 1956, pp. 89-93.

[In the following essay, originally printed in 1949 in The New York Times Review as regular feature interviews, Breit asks Paton about the differences between South African and American blacks, his career preoccupations, and his literary influences and methods.]

This reporter saw Alan Paton on the eve of his leaving for England to receive a special literary award from The London Times for his distinguished novel, Cry, the Beloved Country. In New York he had seen the "musical tragedy" version of his novel; in London he will put the finishing touches to the...

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Orville Prescott (essay date 1952)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Four Great Novels," in his In My Opinion: An Inquiry into the Contemporary Novel, Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1952, pp. 235-48.

[In the following excerpt, Prescott opines that Cry, the Beloved Country is among the "great novels," praising Paton's artistic treatment of the story's themes.]

The second modern novel which I dare call great is the finest I have ever read about the tragic plight of black-skinned people in a white man's world, Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton. Without any of the blind rage which has led so many writers on similar themes into bitterness and dogmatism, without any of the customary oversimplification and exaggerated...

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Myron Matlaw (essay date 1975)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country and Maxwell Anderson's/Kurt Weill's Lost in the Stars: A Consideration of Genres," in Arcadia, Vol. 10, No. 3, 1975, pp. 260-72.

[In the essay below, Matlaw compares the generic methods of Cry, the Beloved Country to Maxwell Anderson's Lost in the Stars (1949), a stage adaptation of Paton's novel, demonstrating how each work uses such formal strategies as narrative, stylistic devices, and characterization that achieve "very similar effects."]

Drama, if it is not stillborn, is the joint creation of writer, producer, director, actors, stage technicians, musicians, and others. It comes to life only...

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J. B. Thompson (essay date March 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Poetic Truth in 'Too Late the Phalarope,'" in English Studies in Africa, Vol. 24, No. 1, March, 1981, pp. 37-44.

[Below, Thompson explains how Too Late the Phalarope manifests universality despite the contemporary relevance of the novel's historical aspects.]

Instead of entitling this essay as I have done, I might simply have said an 'interpretation' of the novel, or more confidently (and, probably, more honestly) 'its meaning' or 'its value for us'. But what I wanted to stress were the limitations of focusing on the mere 'historic truth' of the novel. By historic truth I mean of course something much broader than what Aristotle had in mind in his...

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Irma Ned Stevens (essay date Winter 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Paton's Narrator Sophie: Justice and Mercy in Too Late the Phalarope," in The International Review, Vol. 8, No. 1, Winter, 1981, pp. 68-70.

[In the following essay, Stevens examines Sophie's function and position as narrator in Too Late the Phalarope in terms of the novel's concerns with the natures of obedience and love.]

On its publication in 1953, Too Late the Phalarope, Alan Paton's second novel, was greeted with praise. With increasing focus on civil rights, not only in the Union of South Africa but also in the United States, the novel has become even more timely than when it was originally published. Further, Paton's continuing...

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John Romano (review date 4 April 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Novel of Hope and Realism," in The New York Times Book Review, April 4, 1982, p. 7.

[In the review below, Romano celebrates the classical emphasis on human truths and values of Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful.]

Alan Paton's first novel, Cry, the Beloved Country, is one of the few works by a contemporary writer one would risk calling a classic; in the case of that novel, published in 1948, the word has a rather specific meaning. The idea of a classic is historically bound up with the view, powerfully embodied in Paton's book, that there are certain perdurable human truths and values, immune from geographical or historical vitiation. The classical view,...

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Rose Moss (essay date Spring 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Alan Paton: Bringing a Sense of the Sacred," in World Literature Today, Vol. 57, No. 2, Spring, 1983, pp. 233-37.

[In the following essay, Moss traces environmental, liturgical, and spiritual influences in Paton's art.]

There is a country its writers do not name. Not all, or not in all works. But time after time, and more frequently during the last decade, we read the country's name into a negative space where, in works from another country, we would find a name. Or we read a circumlocution. Or we read an invented name and geography through whose features we recognize known eyes.

There may be many reasons its writers do not name this country....

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Nicholas H. Z. Watts (essay date June 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Study of Alan Paton's Too Late the Phalarope," in Durham University Journal, Vol. LXXVI, No. 2, June, 1984, pp. 249-54.

[Below, Watts discusses the classical, epic, psychological, and religious dimensions of Too Late the Phalarope.]

The role of the White South African novelist is often assumed by outsiders to be primarily that of keeper of the national conscience. We may be surprised at the number of important writers—André Brink, Athol Fugard, Nadine Gordimer, Alan Paton and Laurens van der Post come quickly to mind—who have been nurtured in that beautiful and troubled land, but we expect their work to be, as it often is, a vehicle for social...

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William Minter (review date 20 November 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Moderate to a Fault?," in The New York Times Book Review, November 20, 1988, p. 36.

[In the review below, Minter outlines the major events of Paton's life covered in Journey Continued.]

For four decades, Alan Paton's novel Cry, the Beloved Country has given millions their first glimpses of the human tragedy of South African racism. Its simple eloquence leaves few unmoved. Appropriately, it forms the hinge between the two volumes of Paton's autobiography.

Towards the Mountain, which was published in 1980, recounted Paton's conversion from the white racist paternalism he had accepted until his mid-30's. Between 1941 and 1943 he...

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Myrtle Hooper (essay date 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Paton and the Silence of Stephanie," in English Studies Africa, Vol. 32, No. 1, 1989, pp. 53-63.

[In the following essay, Hooper investigates the function and effects of Stephanie's "silence" in Too Late the Phalarope.]

In every story there is a silence, some sight concealed, some word unspoken, I believe.

[J. M. Coetzee, Foe]

I think it might be safe to describe the affiliations of Alan Paton as liberal and humanist, and his endeavour as a writer of fiction as realist and didactic. Certainly in Too Late the Phalarope his concern is to...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Davies, Horton. "Pilgrims, Not Strangers." In his A Mirror of the Ministry in Modern Novels, pp. 113-36. New York: Oxford University Press, 1959.

Studies the characters of Reverend Stephen Kumalo and Father Vincent in Cry, the Beloved Country, focusing on the relationship of Protestant missionaries to the interracial complexities of South Africa.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. "Paternalism, Ideology, and Ideological Critique: Teaching Cry, the Beloved Country." College English 19, No. 3 (October 1992–February 1993): 206-10.

Espouses an ideological approach to...

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