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Picture of Alan Paton, author of Cry, the Beloved Country; twentieth century South African Literature

January 11, 1903
Alan Paton   (1903 - 1988)
Paton's Beloved Country
by Steve King

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On 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:
    Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veldt with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.
Before he sailed for home in early 1947, Paton had a deal with Scribners. When the book was published a year later, it had rave reviews and was an immediate, international best-seller-though not at home, Paton saying that few white Afrikaners read it, and that only one newspaper reviewed it. More than this, the situation in South Africa was rapidly heading in a direction entirely opposite to that argued for in Paton's novel. For Paton personally this resulted in an irony of tragic proportions. The success of Cry, the Beloved Country had persuaded him to resign his principalship at the Reformatory and become a writer, but between announcing his resignation in March of 1948 and the resignation taking effect at the end of June, the National Party swept to power in South Africa, bringing apartheid with it. When Paton arrived at his own retirement ceremony, he discovered to his shock and horror that his pro-National Party vice-principal, swept up in apartheid-mania, had arranged a totally segregated reception.

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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