December 15, 2017
Paton's Beloved CountryOn this day in 1903, novelist and reformer Alan Paton was born in the KwaZulu-Natal region of South Africa. Paton was the Principal of Diepkloof Reformatory in Johannesburg for twelve years; his first and most famous novel, Cry, the Beloved Country, was written in 1946 while he was away from home, touring reform schools and prisons in Europe and North America. Though an anguished cri de Coeur for racial tolerance, and now a modern classic, the book's publication is pure Cinderella story.
Paton's autobiography tells of arriving in his lonely hotel room in Trondheim, Norway and, without knowing his direction or his theme, sitting down to write what would be the novel's first nostalgic, sentences: "There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it...." He stayed "under the influence of this powerful emotion" for another three months, writing at night in a series of hotel rooms. The first two people who read the manuscript, friends in San Francisco, wept over it. They helped him type and send chapters to fifteen publishers, nine of whom responded enthusiastically within two weeks -- Paton was a first-time author here, having published only one college poem and several articles on penal reform. Before doing so, the friends pointed out that the book had no title; the three of them chose one by secret ballot, each writing the same thing on their slip of paper, the opening words from the book's most famous passage:
Paton went on to write many other books, and to found the Liberal Party, which was to be criticized on one side for being anti-apartheid and on the other side as not nearly anti-apartheid enough. When he died in 1988, his novel was still selling well -- and still, as Nelson Mandela put it, "a monument to the future."
It is a future that Alan Paton's widow decided to view from a distance: her 1998 letter to the London Sunday Times expressed her reasons for fleeing the crime culture in post-apartheid South Africa, and her thanks that her husband was not alive "to see what has happened to his beloved country."
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