Alan Paton

Alan Stewart Paton (1903-1988) was born in Pietermaritzburg, in the province of Natal, South Africa. This South African writer loved his homeland, worked diligently as an anti-apartheid activist and saw extreme success with his first novel, Cry, the Beloved Country (1948). He is known for his sweeping and poetic descriptions of the South African landscape and led an exciting life that helped inform his writing and shape his views.

Alan Paton Alan Paton

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Table of contents

    Alan Paton Biography

    Alan Paton was born on January 11, 1903, to his father, James Paton, a Scottish immigrant and civil servant. Paton’s mother, Eunice Warder James, was the daughter of English immigrants. Neither of his parents was highly educated.

    Paton’s father was strict, overbearing, and believed in corporal punishment. James Paton often used his belief in corporal punishment to control his children, and Alan Paton and his siblings often experienced physical abuse growing up. This early childhood trauma was instrumental in leading to Paton’s opposition to physical punishment, a dominant theme in his writing. A deeply religious man, Paton’s father introduced Paton to reading early on by focusing on the Bible. Paton also read works by Charles Dickens, Walter Scott, and Rupert Brooke.

    Alan Paton, image of the author, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Image of writer Alan Paton.

    After attending the University of Natal, he taught school for three years in the rural village of Ixopo, which was the setting for his first novel, Cry, the Beloved Country. While in Ixopo, he met his wife Dorrie Francis Lusted. A devout educator, he was made principal of the Diepkloof Reformatory, a school for delinquent boys near Johannesburg. Believing that these troubled students needed more than punishment, he instituted progressive reforms that included a garden to help the students become more grounded.

    Towards the end of World War II, Paton decided to study prisons and reformatories and traveled to Sweden, Norway, Canada, and the United States. While visiting Norway on this trip, Paton began to draft Cry, the Beloved Country, a project he finished a mere three months later while in San Francisco.

    Shortly after, Paton retired from Diepkloof Reformatory and lived on the south coast of Natal, where he focused on writing articles about South African affairs. During this time, Paton also helped to form the Liberal Association of South Africa, which later emerged as the Liberal Party of South Africa (LPSA) in 1953—an influential political party.

    At a dinner party with friends, Alan Paton settled on the title of his most famous novel. He requested feedback, and upon reading sections of his work, all the guests at the party settled on the same title almost immediately: Cry, the Beloved Country. It is one of the phrases repeated throughout the novel and encompasses the heart of the novel—a land in despair that is treasured beyond compare.

    Alan Paton never saw the same success he experienced with Cry, the Beloved Country with his other novels, but he continued to write. He wrote another fiction piece, Too Late the Phalarope (1953), which also examined the racial tensions in South Africa.

    Paton was the president of the LPSA until the government dissolved it due to its members being comprised of both Black and white people. He was an anti-apartheid activist and supported peaceful resistance rather than violent protests. Because many members of the LPSA did support more extreme measures while protesting apartheid, negative associations began revolving around the political party. As a result, Paton's passport was confiscated by the South African Government in 1960 when he returned from a trip to New York City, where he had just received the Annual Freedom Award.

    The Annual Freedom Award is awarded to one individual a year from the Freedom House. It began in 1943 and included other activists such as Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1945, Winston Churchill in 1955, and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963.

    He published a collection of short stories titled Tales from a Troubled Land (1961). A few years later, his wife was diagnosed with emphysema, and she passed in 1967. He then published some non-fiction works that included a volume of essays titled The Long View (1968) and a memoir written as a tribute to his wife, Kontakion for you Departed (1969). In 1969 Paton married again to Anne Hopkins, with whom he stayed married until his death.

    Alan Paton remained an influential activist for human rights. His desire to end apartheid came from his Christian faith, as he was committed to working toward political and social harmony by ending racial separation in South Africa. Payton's passport was finally returned to him in 1970. His last fiction piece Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful was published in 1981.

    Alan Paton Death

    In 1988 Alan Paton was diagnosed with inoperable and untreatable throat cancer. He continued to write until his death. He died near Durban, South Africa, on Tuesday, April 12, 1988. He was 85 years old and was survived by his wife and two children.

    Alan Paton Themes

    Alan Paton saw extreme suffering and bore witness to the discord created in his native land from the damages of political upheaval, people looking to profit off the natural resources in South Africa, and the harsh consequences of apartheid.

    Apartheid: a system of institutionalized racial segregation in South Africa from 1948 until the 1990s. It roughly translates to "split land."

    Alan Paton, apartheid protests, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Anti-apartheid images show the need for change in politics in South Africa.

    The Damages of Harsh Punishment

    Influenced by his experience as a child with his overbearing father and by his work with the boys’ reformatory, Paton saw firsthand how harsh punishments damaged an individual’s psyche, prevented true progress, and were incompatible in a system looking to rehabilitate individuals for a better life.

    Ah, but Your Land Is Beautiful, a fiction novel divided into 6 parts, examines the lives of six individuals deeply impacted by apartheid and terrorized by harsh punishments and strict laws. The first story involves The Defiance Campaign against Unjust Laws. In 1952 this anti-apartheid movement backed protests that stemmed from a teenage Indian woman who read at a library reserved for white people. Each time she went to the library, she faced imprisonment or other harsh punishments. Her actions inspired others to protest the unjust laws, and the government increased the penalties for protestors. Eventually, The Defiance Campaign disbanded because the punishments grew too harsh.

    The government's overarching punishments on protesters to protect apartheid were extremely damaging to individuals who were subjected to them. These strict laws ultimately harmed protesters and anyone who wasn't white. Payton used the stories in Ah, but Your Land Is Beautiful to show how the penalties of protesting unjust laws prevented true progress from being made.

    Alan Paton, South African Prison, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Prison time was a common punishment for protestors.

    Father-Son Relationships

    Perhaps while working through some of his feelings regarding his relationship with his father, Paton focused on father-son relationships within his writing. His most successful novel, Cry, the Beloved Country, dealt with the connections between fathers and sons and used the two protagonists, Jarvis and Kumalo, to explore these complicated relationships. Stephen Kumalo and his son Absalom Kumalo have a deep divide between them that is only closed with Absalom’s impending execution for murder.

    The two had differing ideologies, and the father focused on the community and relationships that kept their culture grounded. Absalom sought wealth, desired to leave his roots, and attempted to make way for himself in the bustling and growing city. Desperate, he turned to a life of crime and accidentally became a murderer. Ultimately, he and his father found peace and understanding in one another before Absalom’s execution.

    James Jarvis and his son Arthur Jarvis are the other central father-son relationship in Cry, the Beloved Country. Arthur was the man murdered by Absalom in a robbery gone wrong, and he had fought diligently for the rights of South African citizens during apartheid in South Africa. While James found success and wealth by profiting off of South Africa’s native soil and others' hard work, his son sought to end the system that he profited from. However, after reading his now-deceased son’s letters, James Jarvis began to understand his son and started working in his son's honor.

    Alan Paton Works

    Alan Paton was a prolific writer who concerned himself with the politics and preservation of the unique culture in South Africa. He used his writing as a platform to show the discord in a society where native South Africans were exploited. Here are some of his notable works.

    Alan Paton, South African crops, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Crops native to the soil of Africa. The bright yellows, browns, and blues are visually stimulating and mirror Payton's descriptions of the landscape in his writing.

    Cry, the Beloved Country

    Cry, the Beloved Country followed the account of an older Black minster who must come to terms with the sin of murder his son committed. He is forced to face the decaying conditions of his South African society, where the old societal structures have been dissolved, and apartheid hurt indigenous people. Families were torn apart, and as many people lacked opportunity, some South Africans turned to a life of crime and violence.

    Too Late the Phalarope

    This novel, published in 1953, accounts for interracial attraction during apartheid South Africa. Alan Paton wrote it over two years. It dealt with one man’s struggle within a society that is intolerant of people who do not adhere to the status quo. A white police officer was chastised and dealt with his career and reputation ruined when it was discovered that he had sexual relations with a woman of a different race.

    Tales from a Troubled Land

    Tales from a Troubled Land is a collection of ten short stories that use intricate details and feature touching vignettes of South Africa and its people. This collection's main theme revolves around the inequity people faced during apartheid under The National Party. The theme of racism is prevalent throughout these stories, and Paton uses a compassionate tone when discussing his beloved homeland of South Africa.

    Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful

    Like much of Paton’s work, this novel is set in South Africa between 1952 and 1958 and deals with themes of harsh punishment and racism. Its anti-apartheid message aligns with Paton's political affiliation with the Liberal Party of South Africa. These 6 stories reflect the deep human price of maintaining a racially divided society.

    Alan Paton Quotes

    Here are some key quotes that describe his politics regarding apartheid.

    I don't worry about the wounds. When I go up there, which is my intention, the Big Judge will say to me, Where are your wounds? and if I say I haven’t any, he will say, Was there nothing to fight for? I couldn’t face that question." (Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful, Part 2)

    Alan Paton was a devout Christian and fought tirelessly for equal rights during apartheid. In this quote from Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful, two characters discuss the suffering in their futures as they fight for equality. Regardless, the harsh punishments the two characters will endure supporting the anti-apartheid movement are worthwhile and necessary both in the eyes of God and their fellow citizens.

    The great red hills stand empty, and the earth has torn away like flesh. The lightning flashes over them, the clouds pour down upon them, the dead streams come to life, full of the red blood of the earth. Down in the valleys women struggle to work the soil that is left, and the corn hardly reaches the height of a man. They are valleys of old men and old women, of mothers and children. The men are away, the young men and the girls are away. The soil cannot keep them any more." (Cry, the Beloved Country, Chapter 1)

    Paton had an uncanny ability to describe the sweeping South African landscape and equate it with the social situation of the area. Here he uses the dry, desolate land, which lacks nutrients, to parallel the condition of the society and local culture. The land is unmanageable and can no longer sustain life, much like the social conditions created by apartheid.

    But the house that is broken, and the man that falls apart 15 when the house is broken, these are the terrible things. That is why children break the law, and old white people are robbed and beaten."

    (Cry, the Beloved Country, Chapter 4)

    Alan Paton believed in the intrinsic goodness of humans and never lost faith in humankind’s ability to mend what was broken. He maintained faith in society’s ability to reconcile and rebuild broken bonds. He believed that the innocent child who wrongs is a product of a faulty system rather than the innate character of the child. He believed that to help, you must build the person rather than punish the person.

    Alan Paton - Key takeaways

    • Alan Stewart Paton (1903-1988) was born in 1903 in Pietermaritzburg, in the province of Natal, South Africa.
    • He is most remembered as the author of Cry, the Beloved Country (1948).
    • Paton was an avid educator and sought to help the children at a reformatory for boys before he retired.
    • Alan Paton was a strong anti-apartheid voice and sought to bring awareness to the violence in South Africa through his writing.
    • Paton's works revolved around the themes of racism, harsh punishments, and father-son relationships.


    1. Fig. 1 - "Alan Paton" ( by Perijove is licensed with GNU Free documentation license.
    2. Fig. 2 - "Anti-apartheid protests in the early '90s" ( by Nagarjun is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Alan Paton

    How did Alan Paton die? 

    Alan Paton died from throat cancer. 

    Where was Alan Paton born? 

    Alan Paton was born in Pietermaritzburg, Natal, South Africa. 

    What nationality is Alan Paton? 

    Alan Paton was South African. 

    What is Alan Paton famous for? 

    Alan Paton is most famous for his novel Cry, the Beloved Country, published in 1948.

    Why did Alan Paton write Cry, the Beloved Country

    Cry, the Beloved Country was written to help raise awareness of the increased crime rates in South Africa and as a call for help for the land and the people suffering.

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