Alan Paton Biography


Alan Paton drew heavily on his own experiences when he wrote Cry, the Beloved Country, for he had taught school in Ixopo and had been principal of a reformatory, too, where he had dealt with many young men like Absalom Kumalo.

Paton was born January 11, 1903, in the South African city of Pietermaritzburg, the eldest child of English settlers, James and Eunice Paton. While studying science at the University of Natal, he was active in dramatic and religious societies, won the five-mile race in his senior year, was elected president of the student body, and amused himself by writing poetry. He graduated in 1922 and was awarded his teaching certificate the following year.

In 1925, Paton went to teach in a native school in Ixopo and three years later went on to teach at Pietermaritzburg College for another seven years. He wrote a great many poems and two novels, but destroyed the novels because they didn't satisfy him.

Then in 1935, he quit teaching and entered reformatory work, becoming principal of Diepkloof Reformatory, which housed about six hundred boys. Paton began a program of reforms there, providing the boys with more freedom and better preparation for adapting themselves to the outside world prior to their release. In fact, he became known among the inmates as "the man who pulled up barbed wire fences and planted geraniums." The coming of World War II prevented Paton from putting all his reforms into effect. Paton himself tried to enlist in the South African army, but the Department of Education felt he was needed far more at Diepkloof Reformatory.

With the end of the war, Paton started on an ambitious program of studying prisons and reform schools around the world. To finance his studies, he sold his insurance policies; his wife, Dorrie, took a job so that she could support their two sons, David and Jonathon. While he was on a train for Trondheim, Norway, the idea for Cry, the Beloved Country first came to him, and he wrote the first chapter in Trondheim. As he moved on through Great Britain, Canada, and the United States, the idea grew, and he began putting down further scenes for the book.

Cry, the Beloved Country has become a tremendously popular book. In South Africa, it has sold more copies than any book except the Bible, and it has done extremely well in North America, Great Britain, and a good many other countries. It was also made into a play (1949) and a motion picture (1952).

Paton has written a number of other books, including The Land and People of South Africa (1955), South Africa in Transition, written in collaboration with Dan Weiner (1956), Hope for South Africa (1959), Debbie Go Home, a collection of short stories (1961), Jan Hofmeyr, a biography of Paton's friend, the former deputy prime minister of South Africa (1965), and a second novel, Too Late the Phalarope (1953), a book that offers far less hope of a solution to South Africa's problems.

Since the coming of the Nationalist government, Paton has engaged more heavily in the political life of his country. He helped found the Liberal party and was elected president. Because of his writing and his political activities, he was charged with treason in 1960 and had his passport revoked by the government. Although he and all the others who were involved in the famous treason trial (including the Anglican bishop of Johannesburg and Nobel Prize-winner Albert Luthule) were eventually set free, Paton could not travel outside of South Africa and was under police surveillance inside the country. However, with the eventual downfall of apartheid, these restrictions were lifted.

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