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Paton did apply, despite his lack of experience in the criminal justice system, and was appointed warden of Diepkloof Reformatory for African Juvenile Delinquents, a grim place outside Johannesburg enclosed by a barbed-wire stockade. Even Hofmeyr said, "It is hard to know what can be done with it," but Paton was excited-at the age of 32 he'd been given a prison to turn into a school. Like the young white man from the reformatory in Cry, the Beloved Country, he felt he had a chance to change the lives of young blacks. The job lasted from 1935 to 1948, a period during which Paton also wrote articles like those in Arthur Jarvis' desk drawer. In fact, one of Paton's essays-"Who Is Really to Blame for the Crime Wave in South Africa?" (The Forum, December 15, 1945)- presents the themes of the novel as well as those of Arthur's paper in Chapter 20 on the causes of crime among young blacks.
Given a free hand, Paton transformed Diepkloof. It held 400 boys (later more than 600), mostly blacks of the Xhosa ethnic group. He was appalled at the joyless atmosphere, and, every morning, at the stench. After supper and a full workday on the prison farm, the boys were locked up for 14 hours. From 5:00 P.M. to 7:00 A.M. they used buckets in their cells as latrines. Paton immediately began opening cell blocks till 9:00 P.M., starting with those of the younger boys, so they could use the prison bathrooms till then. He also let the boys romp, sing, and paint pictures on the whitewashed walls. By the time he was opening all the cell blocks, he had also had more bathrooms built. His changes brought some joy to the place, eliminated the morning stink, and also ended the typhoid outbreaks that had previously caused many deaths.
When World War II broke out in 1939, Paton tried to enlist in the South African army, but education officials considered him too valuable to let go. By the time the war ended in 1945, Paton was considered an authority on criminal rehabilitation, but he wondered how other countries ran penal institutions for the young. To find out, he financed an eight-month study trip. He didn't leave home with the intention of writing a novel while traveling. What started him off, that September afternoon in Norway, was a tour of the cathedral of Trondheim. The beauty of its famous rose window made him yearn to write about his beautiful homeland and its people. As Paton explains in an Author's Note to Cry, the Beloved Country, it was in San Francisco that friends read his manuscript and started contacting publishers. The book was first published in New York in early 1948.
The novel sold well both in North America and in Great Britain. It was soon translated into some 20 languages, and made into a film in England (1952) and a musical in the United States (Lost in the Stars, 1949, script by the playwright Maxwell Anderson and music by the German-American composer Kurt Weill). The South African edition, dedicated to Jan Hofmeyr, came out three months before Hofmeyr's death at age 54 in December 1948. Book sales in South Africa were second only to those of the Bible, and Paton became famous.
Critic James Stern in the New Republic called it "one of the best novels of our time." And Orville Prescott, The New York Times book reviewer, wrote in the Yale Review that Paton's novel was "the finest I have ever read about the tragic plight of black-skinned people in a white man's world."
Another event of importance to the Patons also occurred in 1948- the coming to power of the Nationalist
Party, pledged to separation of the races in every sphere of life. At Diepkloof the Patons had ignored
people's color in forming friendships, and they could not endure the new government's opposition to
interracial association. With the success of his novel making Paton influential, he ultimately became a full-time writer and spokesman against injustice. Years later, in For You Departed, he wrote about the novel
and that time period: "It is a song of love for one's far distant country.... It is a story of the beauty and terror
In 1953 the Liberal Association of South Africa (later the Liberal Party) was formed, and Paton was named its first national chairman. For the next 15 years Paton's life was dominated by activities of the racially mixed party, by writing plays for multiracial casts and audiences, and by political writing and speaking. One play, Mkhumbane, drew packed houses in Durban City Hall in 1960- a time of peaceful black protest against apartheid at Sharpeville and Cape Town that was dealt with extremely harshly by the government.
For his work on behalf of the people of South Africa and against the evils of apartheid, Paton has received international recognition. In 1960, the noted American poet Archibald MacLeish toasted Alan Paton when the South African received the Freedom Award from Freedom House: To live at the center of the contemporary maelstrom; to see it for what it is and to challenge the passions of those who struggle in it beside him with the voice of reason-with the enduring reasons of love; to offer the quiet sanity of the heart in a city yammering with the crazy slogans of fear; to do all this at the cost of tranquility and the risk of harm, as a service to a government which does not know its needs is to deserve more of history than we can give to Alan Paton.
Until shortly before her death in 1967, Paton's wife typed all of his work, including the novel Too Late the Phalarope (1953), the story collection Tales from a Troubled Land (1961), and the biography Hofmeyr (1964). Since her death, Paton's best-known work includes For You Departed (1969), a memoir dedicated to her, and The Long View (1968), a collection of articles from a Liberal Party publication. More recent is his novel set in the 1950s, Ah, But Your Land is Beautiful (1981)- the title is a phrase borrowed from bewildered tourists who give up trying to understand South African politics.
All of Paton's books show his love of his country and his compassion for all South Africans. He still hopes that violence there will end, that the dynamite will never be ignited, and that the views that will prevail will be like those of Arthur Jarvis and Msimangu in Cry, the Beloved Country.