Cry, the Beloved Country

Cry, the beloved country : the book

Although Alan Paton wrote poetry, short stories and other novels, and was a well-known Liberal Party politician and opponent of apartheid, it is for writing Cry, the beloved country that he is best known and remembered.  While on an investigative tour of the prisons of England and the United States, he visited Norway, in September 1946.  He was taken to see the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, and while sitting admiring the beautiful rose window, and also feeling very homesick, the first chapter of Cry, the beloved country came into his mind.  He went back to his hotel room, and there he wrote the first chapter, while waiting to be taken to dinner.  He had recently read The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, and previously Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun,  and acknowledged their effect on him.

Paton was to continue writing his novel on the rest of his trip through Norway, back to England, and on to the United States on the Queen Elizabeth, where he wrote whilst on his travels from New York to San Francisco.  In San Francisco he met Aubrey and Marigold Burns, who kindly invited him to spend Christmas Day with them.  He finished writing his novel on 29 December 1946, in his hotel room in San Francisco.  He gave it to the Burnses to read shortly before his birthday, 11 January 1947.  They were profoundly moved by it as a work of genius.  Marigold Burns organised for her friends to type fifteen copies of six chapters, which they then sent to fifteen possible publishers.  Scribner?s were most interested, and Paton then sent from Ottawa, Canada, where he had gone on to, the second part of the book back to Marigold Burns for typing.  The precious only copy of the manuscript was sent by rail, as snow storms prevented air traffic.  On 7 February 1947, Charles Scribner agreed to publish the book. 

It took a year for the book to be published. It came out in New York on 1 February 1948, and was greeted with outstanding reviews from the critics.  It sold out on the day of its publication, and was reprinted immediately.  After three months, it was already in its sixth printing.  By the time Paton died in 1988, 15 million copies had been sold in twenty languages.

The plot of the story of Cry, the beloved country concerns a humble black priest, the Reverend Stephen Kumalo, who lived in poverty in the countryside near Ixopo, KwaZulu-Natal.  He received a letter summoning him to Johannesburg to see to his sick sister, Gertrude, who had gone there to work.  His son, Absalom, had also not been heard from for some time.  He searches for them with the help of a Johannesburg priest, Msimangu, and discovers with horror that his sister has turned to prostitution and his son has committed murder.  His life becomes tragically entwined with that of a neighbouring white farmer from Ixopo, James Jarvis.  This simple tale went to the heart of the millions who read it, world-wide.

It was to become a play: ‘Lost in the Stars’, produced by Maxwell Anderson and Kurt Weill in New York in 1949, and a film, produced by the Korda brothers in London in 1951. A second film was made in colour in 1995, produced by Anant Singh for United International Pictures.

(Information taken from Alan Paton: a biography by Peter F. Alexander.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.  ISBN 0-19-811237-8.)