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Paton was born in Pietermaritzburg, Natal Province (now KwaZulu-Natal), the son of a minor civil servant. After attending Maritzburg College, he earned a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Natal in his hometown, followed by a diploma in education. After graduation, Paton worked as a teacher, first at the Ixopo High School, and subsequently at a Maritzburg College While at Ixopo he met Dorrie Francis Lusted. They were married in 1928 and remained together until her death from emphysema in 1967. Their life together is documented in Paton's book Kontakion for You Departed, published in 1969.
He served as the principal of Diepkloof Reformatory for young (African Black) offenders from 1935 to 1949, where he introduced controversial progressive reforms, including policies on open dormitories, work permits, and home visitation. Boys were initially housed in closed dormitories; once they had proven themselves trustworthy, they would be transferred to open dormitories within the compound. Boys who showed great trustworthiness would be permitted to work outside the compound. In some cases, boys were even permitted to reside outside the compound under the supervision of a care family. Fewer than 5% of the 10,000 boys who were given home leave during Paton's years at Diepkloof ever broke their trust by failing to return.
Paton volunteered for service during World War II, but was refused. After the war he took a trip, at his own expense, to tour correctional facilities across the world. He toured Scandinavia, England, continental Europe, Canada, and the United States of America. During his time in Norway, he began work on his seminal novel Cry, The Beloved Country, which he completed over the course of his journey, finishing it on Christmas Eve in San Francisco in 1946. There, he met Aubrey and Marigold Burns, who read his manuscript and found a publisher: the editor Maxwell Perkins, noted for editing novels of Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, guided Paton's first novel through publication with Scribner's.
Paton published multiple books in the 1950s and became wealthy from their sales.
Opposition to apartheid
In 1948, four months after the publication of Cry, The Beloved Country, the separatist National Party came to power in South Africa. In 1953 Paton founded the Liberal Party of South Africa, which fought against the apartheid legislation introduced by the National Party. He remained the president of the SALP until its forced dissolution by the apartheid regime in the late 1960s, officially because its membership comprised both blacks and whites. Paton was a friend of Bernard Friedman, founder of the Progressive Party (South Africa). Paton's writer colleague Laurens van der Post, who had moved to England in the 1930s, helped the party in many ways. Van der Post knew that the South African Secret Police were aware that he was paying money to Paton, but could not stop it by legal procedures. Paton himself adopted a peaceful opposition in protests against apartheid, as did many others in the party; some SALP members took a more violent route, and consequently some stigma did attach to the party. Paton's passport was confiscated on his return from New York in 1960, where he had been presented with the annual Freedom Award. It was not returned for ten years.
Cry, The Beloved Country has been filmed twice (in 1951 and 1995) and was the basis for the Broadway musical Lost in the Stars (adaptation by Maxwell Anderson, music by Kurt Weill). Paton's second and third novels, Too Late the Phalarope (1953) and Ah, but Your Land is Beautiful (1981), and his short stories, Tales From a Troubled Land (1961), all deal with the same racial themes that concerned the author in his first novel. Ah, but Your Land is Beautiful was built on parallel life stories, letters, speeches, news and records in legal proceedings, and mixed fictional and real-life characters, such as Donald Molteno, Albert Luthuli and Hendrik Verwoerd. The novel is categorised as historical fiction, as it gives an accurate account of the resistance movement in South Africa during the 1960s. "Paton attempts to imbue his characters with a humanity not expected of them. In this novel, for example, we meet the supposedly obdurate Afrikaner who contravenes the infamous Immorality Act. There are other Afrikaners, too, who are led by their consciences and not by rules, and regulations promulgated by a faceless, monolithic parliament."
Paton was a prolific essay writer on race and politics in South Africa. In Save the Beloved Country he plays on the famous title of his first novel, but keeps a serious tone in discussing many of the famous personalities and issues on different sides of South Africa's apartheid struggle. His Anglican faith was another factor in his life and work: the title of one work is Instrument of Thy Peace. Paton also wrote two autobiographies: Towards the Mountain deals with Paton's life leading up to and including the publication of Cry, the Beloved Country (an event that changed the course of his life) while Journey Continued takes its departure from that time onwards. He also wrote a biography of his friends Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr (Hofmeyr), and Geoffrey Clayton (Apartheid and the Archbishop). Another literary form that interested him throughout his life was poetry; the biographer Peter Alexander includes many of these poems in his biography of Paton.
The Alan Paton Award for non-fiction is conferred annually in his honour.
- Cry, The Beloved Country, 1948 – made into a film in 1951, directed by Zoltan Korda with a screenplay by Paton himself; in 1995, directed by Darrell Roodt; also a musical and an opera
- Lost in the Stars 1950 – a musical based on the above work (book and lyrics by Maxwell Anderson, music by Kurt Weill)
- Too Late the Phalarope, 1953
- The Land and People of South Africa, 1955
- South Africa in Transition, 1956
- Debbie Go Home, 1960
- Tales from a Troubled Land, 1961
- Hofmeyr, 1964
- South African Tragedy, 1965
- Sponono, 1965 (with Krishna Shah)
- The Long View, 1967
- Instrument of Thy Peace, 1968
- Kontakion For You Departed, 1969 (also: For You Departed)
- D. C. S. Oosthuizen Memorial Lecture, 1970
- Case History of a Pinky, 1972
- Apartheid and the Archbishop: the Life and Times of Geoffrey Clayton, Archbishop of Cape Town, 1973
- Knocking on the Door, 1975
- Towards the Mountain, 1980
- Ah, but Your Land is Beautiful, 1981
- Journey Continued: An Autobiography, 1988
- Save the Beloved Country, 1989
- The Hero of Currie Road: the complete short pieces, 2008 
- Anne Paton (1992) Some Sort of a Job: My Life with Alan Paton, The Penguin Group (SA) (Pty) Ltd ISBN 978-0670839698
- Holland, Roy (2008). Alan Paton Speaking. Clashnessie, Scotland, UK: Diadem Books. p. 116. ISBN 978-0-9559741-4-4.
- Contributions to liberal theory
- List of African writers
- List of South Africans — In 2004 Paton was voted 59th in the SABC3's Great South Africans
- Alan (Stewart) Paton (1903–1988)
- "A mixture of ice and fulfilled desire – Mail & Guardian Online: The smart news source". Mg.co.za. 2005-11-14. Retrieved 2010-05-13.
- Herbert Mitgang (13 April 1988). "Alan Paton, Author Who Fought Against Apartheid, Is Dead at 85". The New York Times. Retrieved 8 May 2012.
- Alan Stewart Paton, South Africa (1903–1988), Liberal International website
- from Post-Colonial African Writers, ed. by Pushipa Naidu Parekh and Siga Fatima Jagne, 1998
- "Umuzi – The Hero of Currie Road – Detail Page". Umuzi-randomhouse.co.za. 2008-05-27. Retrieved 2010-05-13.
- The Alan Paton Centre & Struggle Archives
- Alan Paton — A short biography and bibliography
- Cry the Beloved Country at the Internet Movie Database
- Cry the Beloved Country at the Internet Movie Database
- A mixture of ice and fulfilled desire, Mail & Guardian, Nov 14 2005