Knocking on the Door
As the President of the South African Liberal Party and the champion of human rights, Alan Paton has been known to many as an eloquent speaker and accomplished writer in the fields of political science and philosophy. He is known to many others as a novelist whose poignant portrayals of his homeland evoke an understanding if not an acceptance on the part of his readers of the clashing viewpoints that both weave a multifaceted tapestry of culture and threaten to tear it apart. These two facets of Alan Paton as a writer are juxtaposed in this selection of his shorter works through the inclusion by the editor, Colin Gardner, of both imaginative and discursive writings.
Gardner claims in the foreword that no evaluation of the works has been made, although through the selecting process he has provided the readers with a collection of items that speak for themselves with disarming forthrightness. They are presented in approximate chronological order, divided into four major sections, each of which is prefaced by a biographical note. His imaginative pieces are interfiled with the discursive works, but each genre is identified in the table of contents by a different typeface. Gardner, in selecting these items, has provided the reader with a balanced picture of Paton the public crusader and Paton the private philosopher set against the immensely complex backdrop of the South African social milieu.
Paton, because of his strong political and social convictions, has always felt compelled to write serious discursive pieces. Those presented in the first section include three pamphlets on penal reform written for the Penal Reform League of South Africa, and two more literary essays written for periodicals. During this first, somewhat sociologically oriented stage in his development as a writer, Paton served as the principal of a reformatory for delinquent black youngsters—an experience which forced him to focus upon and sharpen his conflicting feelings and thoughts on the racial situation in his country. “This is My Own, My Native Land,” an essay written for the periodical Commonsense, explicates the primary theme in his poetry at the time as well as in his reform pamphlets, that people must be understood and judged as individuals, not as members of a group. It is evident that his approach to penal reform would put into practice this very idea in the hope of fostering self-respect, especially on the part of black youngsters. The corollary theme echoes throughout these early years, that progress for black people is inevitable and would be better accepted graciously than forced.
While his professional writings at this time stand solidly for the acceptance of all on the basis of individual merit, the more private writings, his poetry, belie his concern for those who will find such acceptance very difficult. “Old Til” and “The Hermit” are both fairly short poems, and yet each mirrors the irrational fear, the panic, felt by persons who are being forced to accepts situations that are antithetical to their traditional beliefs. “Old Til” also shows evidence of his strengthening Christian beliefs and the shame he feels at the domination of the blacks by the organized church as an extention of the political climate, convincing them to be thankful for the white rulers of their country. This same shame and confusion over his conflicting feelings of idealism, tradition, and selfishness are very clearly set forth in “Trilemma.” His poetry is very personal, his loyalties not too clearly drawn.
At the end of this period in his life, Paton published his first major work, Cry, the Beloved Country, and in the same year resigned from the Reformatory principalship in order to devote his time to writing. His professional experience had acted as a catalyst, helping him to identify many of his own beliefs and the success of his novel revealed that they had universal applicability.
The second section of the work covers fewer years and spans his attainment of full success as a writer. The items included are primarily imaginative in nature, and very much motivated toward ending social injustice. In “Why I Write,” one of the two discursive pieces, Paton admits that he has found a voice of conscience within himself that he cannot silence, unpopular though his convictions might be with many of his fellow South Africans. “To Walt...
(The entire section is 1796 words.)