Cry, the Beloved Country | Critical Review by William Minter

This literature criticism consists of approximately 21 pages of analysis & critique of Cry, the Beloved Country.
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Critical Review by William Minter

SOURCE: "Moderate to a Fault?," in The New York Times Book Review, November 20, 1988, p. 36.

In the review below, Minter outlines the major events of Paton's life covered in Journey Continued.

For four decades, Alan Paton's novel Cry, the Beloved Country has given millions their first glimpses of the human tragedy of South African racism. Its simple eloquence leaves few unmoved. Appropriately, it forms the hinge between the two volumes of Paton's autobiography.

Towards the Mountain, which was published in 1980, recounted Paton's conversion from the white racist paternalism he had accepted until his mid-30's. Between 1941 and 1943 he sat on an Anglican commission on South African society that consisted of 31 whites and two blacks. From his fellow commissioners and others associated with the liberal Institute of Race Relations, Paton gained a vision. "I was no longer a white person but a member of the human race."

On leave from his position as director of a reformatory for African boys, Paton was inspired to write Cry, the Beloved Country. Its publication in 1948 transformed him overnight into South Africa's most celebrated writer. He was then 45 years old. Journey Continued takes up his story at this point, with his reactions to fame and to the election that year of the Afrikaner-based National Party, which advocated an intensification of the country's system of white racial dominance, using as a slogan, "apartheid" ("apartness").

Journey Continued maintains the clear writing style, the attention to detail and the candor of Paton's earlier works. It discusses South African politics, as well as his family, friends and life as a writer. Yet there is no strong theme comparable to the first volume's vision of a journey toward the holy mountain of justice.

Paton carries the narrative to 1968, with a brief epilogue on the two decades before his death on April 12 this year. One major topic is his leading role in the Liberal Party, which from 1953 to 1968 worked within the white electoral system for racial equality.

His principal literary project during this period was the biography of Jan Hofmeyr, the moderate Afrikaner politician who died in 1948, shortly after his party lost to the hardline Nationalists.

Paton's participation in the Liberal Party, he makes clear, came from moral duty, not from any expectation that the majority of whites would respond. Duty also motivated his decision to testify for political prisoners in the 1950's, even though he rejected the politics of the African National Congress as too radical. He also never participated in the nonviolent resistance campaigns of the time. His vision of change was "to persuade white South Africa to share its power, for reasons of justice and survival."

His heroes were all white: men like Hofmeyr and Archbishop Geoffrey Clayton, whose biography Paton published in 1973. Like Paton, Clayton was eventually impelled to denounce racial injustice, but often seemed as disturbed by intemperate protest as by the system itself.

One of the most revealing passages in Journey Continued deals with the young members of the Liberal Party who, in the tumult of the 1960's, joined a clumsy sabotage campaign against the Government, causing the accidental death of a 77-year-old white woman. Paton's deep revulsion at this act contrasts strikingly with his description of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, which verges on an apologia for the policemen who killed 69 black protesters.

Such glimpses make some sense of Paton's otherwise puzzling political stance of later years, when he found it easier to praise President P. W. Botha's willingness to reform than to accept Bishop Desmond Tutu's call for economic pressures against the apartheid regime. Although Paton refers several times to the mellowing of his outrage against apartheid, his political views probably changed little from his initial conversion in the 1940's.

In Cry, the Beloved Country, the black pastor expresses the fear that "when they turn to loving they will find we are turned to hating." Paton, it seems, found it impossible to listen with openness instead of fear to the new black voices of the 1960's, 70's or 80's. In the end, nevertheless, he will be remembered not for that fear, but for his cry for justice that continues to echo today.

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This section contains 694 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Myron Matlaw