Today In History: Alan Paton of Cry the Beloved Country, Dies

12 April 1988


Alan Paton, the South African author and political leader whose powerful 1948 novel ”Cry, the Beloved Country” aroused many of his countrymen and much of the world against apartheid, died of throat cancer early Tuesday, South African time, at his home outside Durban, his wife Anne said. He was 85 years old.

Mr. Paton worked against the South African system of racial separation in his writings and by serving as head of the Liberal Party, which was eventually disbanded under South African legislation outlawing multi-racial parties.

He stuck resolutely to his liberal convictions but in recent years came to be regarded as a conservative by anti-apartheid organizations because he opposed isolating South Africa economically by such means as government sanctions and the ending of investment by groups and companies. He believed such actions would be self-defeating and harm the very people they were supposed to help.

In an interview this March with John D. Battersby of The New York Times at the novelist’s home in Botha’s Hill, Mr. Paton reflected on the significance of ”Cry, the Beloved Country,” four decades after the book first appeared. It has sold more than 15 million copies in 20 languages, and was also also made into a movie filmed in South Africa in 1952, starring Canada Lee.

”I had an eye on my fellow white South Africans and white Americans when I wrote the book,” Mr. Paton said. ”It wasn’t a book written for the right or the middle or the left. I hoped to influence my fellow whites.”

He added that he still had mixed emotions about the musical version by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson, titled ”Lost in the Stars,” that opened on Broadway in October 1949 and that ran for 281 performances. The ”musical tragedy” played for three weeks this April at the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Manhattan in a revival by the New York Theater Company.

Despite the intensified conflict in South Africa, Mr. Paton said he thought the central theme of ”Cry, the Beloved Country” remained alive.

”I still believe there is hope,” Mr. Paton said.

There was a time when Mr. Paton was considered an enemy of the authorities. The Government withdrew his passport in 1960 when he returned from a visit to Britain and the United States. No reason was given, but it was generally believed that the action was taken because Mr. Paton had attacked Government policies while he was abroad.

For the next 10 years, his books and his essays had to speak for him. He had to refuse many invitations from the United States, including from the Union Theological Seminary and the New School for Social Research in New York City. In 1970, his passport was restored.

When the first volume of his autobiography, ”Towards the Mountain,” came out in 1980, Mr. Paton told a columnist for The Times Book Review that he was still active politically but not as the member of a party. ”I write articles and reviews for the South African journals,” he said. ”Some of our decent writers have had their works banned by Government censors. Why? My dear friend, nobody knows, nobody ever knows. Those who ban books are inscrutable, more inscrutable than the mind of the Almighty.”

”Cry, the Beloved Country” tells the story of a Zulu minister, Stephen Kumalo, who is searching for his sister and for his son, who has murdered a white man; the father loses his faith and ultimately finds it again.

The novel, published without hoopla or book-club selection, received ecstatic reviews. Orville Prescott wrote in The Times that it was ”a beautiful and profoundly moving story, a story steeped in sadness and grief but radiant with hope and compassion.” The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said the book ”is about the only recent religious novel that succeeds.” Later, it was adopted by the Book-of-the-Month Club.

Mr. Paton had been an educator and a public official, but the success of ”Cry, the Beloved Country” induced him to resign the directorship of a reformatory to devote his life to writing. Within weeks of his resignation, the election victory of the National Party, committed to apartheid for South Africa, ”brought my intention to nothing,” he wrote in 1980 in the first volume of his autobiography, ”and condemned me to a struggle between literature and politics that has lasted until now.”

He continued to write fiction and nonfiction, both successfully; he also worked unceasingly in behalf of his political views as a distinguished private citizen and, while it was still possible, as head of the Liberal Party.

”I could have made better use of my life,” he wrote in an essay published in a collection entitled ”The Long View,” ”but I did try hard to do one thing. That was to persuade white South Africa to share its power, for reasons of justice and survival.”

He conceded that he had met little success, but he wrote, ”In a country like South Africa there are many things that must be undertaken without any hope that the ventures will be successful, and there are many ventures in which one must persevere in spite of this lack of success.”



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