Cry, the Beloved Country
By Alan Paton
(Scribner, Paperback, 9780743262170, 320pp.)
Publication Date: November 1, 2003
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Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much."
The most famous and important novel in South Africa's history, and an immediate worldwide bestseller when it was published in 1948, Alan Paton's impassioned novel about a black man's country under white man's law is a work of searing beauty. The eminent literary critic Lewis Gannett wrote, "We have had many novels from statesmen and reformers, almost all bad; many novels from poets, almost all thin. In Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country the statesman, the poet and the novelist meet in a unique harmony."
Cry, the Beloved Country is the deeply moving story of the Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo and his son, Absalom, set against the background of a land and a people riven by racial injustice. Remarkable for its lyricism, unforgettable for character and incident, Cry, the Beloved Country is a classic work of love and hope, courage and endurance, born of the dignity of man.
Alan Paton, a native son of South Africa, was born in Pietermaritzburg, in the province of Natal, in 1903. While his mother was a third-generation South African, his father was a Scots Presbyterian who arrived in South Africa just before the Boer War.
Alan Paton attended college in Pietermaritzburg where he studied science and wrote poetry in his off-hours. After graduating, he wrote two novels and then promptly destroyed them. He devoted himself to writing poetry once again, and later, in his middle years, he wrote serious essays for liberal South African magazines, much the same way his character, Arthur Jarvis, does in Cry, the Beloved Country.
Paton's initial career was spent teaching in schools for the sons of rich, white South Africans, But at thirty, when he was teaching in Pietermaritzburg, he suffered a severe attack of enteric fever, and in the time he had to reflect upon his life, he decided that he did not want to spend his life teaching the sons of the rich.
Paton was a great admirer of Hofmeyr, a man who dared to tell his fellow Afrikaners that they must give up "thinking with the blood," and "maintain the essential value of human personality as something independent of race or color." Paton wrote to Hofmeyr and asked him for a job. To his surprise, he was offered a job as principal of Diepkloof Reformatory, a huge prison school for delinquent black boys, on the edge of Johannesburg. It was a penitentiary, with barbed wire and barred cells, and under Hofmeyr's inspiring leadership, Paton transformed it. Geraniums replaced the barbed wire, the bars were torn down, and soon the feeling in the place changed.
He worked at Diepkloof for ten years, and though it was certainly a fertile period, at the end of it Paton felt so strongly that he needed a change, that he sold his life insurance policies to finance a prison-study trip that took him to Scandinavia, England, and the United States. It was during this time that he unexpectedly wrote his first published novel, Cry, the Beloved Country. It was in Norway that he began it, after a friendly stranger had taken him to see the rose window in the cathedral of Trondheim by torchlight, Paton, no doubt inspired, sat down in his hotel room and wrote the whole first chapter. He had no idea what the rest of the story would be, but it formed itself while he traveled. Parts were written in Stockholm, Trondheim, Oslo, London, and the United States. It was finished in San Francisco. Cry, the Beloved Country was first published in 1948 by Charles Scribner's Sons. It stands as the single most important novel in South African literature.
Alan Paton died in 1988 in South Africa.
Amid the flurry of retrospectives prompted by Nelson Mandela's death, writer Kevin Roose reminds readers not to forget the social context within which Mandela struggled. Roose suggests reading the novel, Cry the Beloved Country, to understand the systematic racial oppression of South Africa under apartheid. More at NPR.org
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