Poets are probably not the unacknowledged legislators of the world—as W.H. Auden once remarked, that honor really goes to the secret police. But words and books make a difference all the same. Witness, for example, the quickening of awareness of the civil rights movement among young white people after Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, joining transformative books such as Richard Wright’s Native Son, published 20 years earlier, and James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, published in 1953.
In 1948, a novel appeared that introduced readers outside the country to a place then not much in the news, exotic and distant: South Africa. There, the long-standing practice of racial and ethnic segregation was hardening into a system of separate and decidedly unequal accommodations for the citizenry: apartheid.
It would take another 40 years for that system to crumble. An early critic of it was a perhaps unlikely man, a soft-spoken former schoolteacher named Alan Paton. Some years before he had left his teaching post on the country’s east coast to move inland to Johannesburg, where he served as director of a reformatory for African boys.
Paton’s move coincided with a mass movement of African people, now dispossessed from their land, from the countryside into the city. Jammed into shantytowns, confined to manual labor and service, they struggled and seethed. Some of the disaffected young, with nothing else to do, turned to crime. In all that, Paton found the crux of his book, Cry, the Beloved Country.
In that novel, Paton’s debut, a young man meaningfully named Absalom runs away to the city, following other members of the family, including an uncle who brags of his life in Johannesburg, “I do not say we are free here. I do not say we are free as men should be. But at least I am free of the chief. At least I am free of an old and ignorant man, who is nothing but a white man’s dog.” Prideful but without direction, Absalom is implicated in a crime that lands him in that white man’s penal system.
Absalom’s arrest draws his reluctant father, an Anglican parson in a remote village in Natal, to the city to plea for his son’s life. He runs up against resistance on all sides, not least from unhelpful fellow clergy. Meanwhile, the father of the murder victim, a young white man, begins a journey of his own to understanding that his own willingness to overlook injustice led to the tragedy.
Left to his inclinations, Paton once remarked, he would have written about the beauty of South Africa, and his descriptions of the landscape are lush and admiring, if sometimes obviously overcharged with Christian imagery. But Paton came to believe, as he wrote, that it was his duty to write about “the gross inequalities that so disfigured national life.” Seventy years after it arrived in the world, Cry, the Beloved Country continues to speak of justice and injustice, a central document in the struggle for equality and human dignity.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.