Alan Paton was a distinguished South African novelist, poet, and biographer, who devoted most of his life to the cause of racial justice in his home country.
Paton was born in Pietermaritzburg, in the province of Natal, on January 11, 1903. He entered Natal University College in 1919, graduating with a B.Sc. degree in 1922. He became a teacher, employed in schools for well-off white students. But in 1934 he became seriously ill with enteric fever, which gave him time to reflect on the direction of his life. Fully aware of the racial injustice in South Africa, in 1935 he accepted a position as principal of Diepkloof Reformatory, a huge prison school for delinquent black boys, on the outskirts of Johannesburg. He remained in this position for ten years, during which he wrote several articles on crime and punishment (just as Arthur Jarvis does in Cry, the Beloved Country) for liberal magazines.
In 1946, Paton took a leave of absence in order to study penal institutions in Europe and the United States. It was while in Europe that he began his first novel, Cry, the Beloved Country. He finished the novel in the United States, and it was immediately accepted for publication by Scribner's. On publication in 1948, the novel was an enormous success. It sold millions of copies and was translated into twenty languages. It was also adapted for a Broadway musical in 1949, made into a film (1950) and adapted as a verse drama (1954). It is still widely regarded as the greatest South African novel.
That same year of 1948, Paton resigned as principal of the reformatory and became a full-time writer. Over the remainder of his life he produced a number of biographies and novels. These included his second novel, Too Late the Phalarope (1953), another story of racial tensions and prejudice in South Africa, and Hofmeyr (1964), a biography of Jan H. Hofmeyr, a liberal Afrikaner and Paton's political mentor. The second of Paton's acclaimed biographies was Apartheid and the Archbishop (1973), about Anglican bishop Geoffrey Clayton.
Paton was also active in politics. He joined the Liberal Party as vice-president in 1953, and became president in 1958. Harassed by the South African government because of his advocacy of racial integration, his international renown ensured that the government stopped short of imprisoning him. In 1960, after he returned from New York, his passport was withdrawn. (It was restored in 1970.)
Paton also wrote two volumes of autobiography, Toward the Mountain (1980) and Journey Continued (1988), and a third novel, Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful (1981). His Collected Poems (1995) was published posthumously.
Paton died in Durban in 1988.