April 12 is a day of literary anniversaries. Beverly Cleary turns 95 today (here’s a link to a short article honoring her birthday). The Iowa Writers’ Workshop–which launched the career of Flannery O’Connor and has produced twenty-eight Pulitzer Prizes–started seventy-five years ago today (here’s an excellent piece about the Iowa Writers’ Workshop). Seventy-five years before that, the first shots of the American Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter.
April 12 is also the anniversary of the death of Alan Paton, author of Cry,The Beloved Country. He died in 1988. If you haven’t read this book, I really must insist that you do. First published in 1948, it tells the story of Stephen Kumalo, a black South African pastor who journeys from his tiny village in Natal to the city of Johannesburg to rescue his erring sister and find his son, both of whom had been swallowed up by the big city. It is a story of suffering and dissolution and grace and forgiveness. I re-read a little of the book this morning and was struck again by how insulated most of us Westerners are from the sorrows and sufferings of the world. And while I don’t wish to suffer like Kumalo and his family, I am also aware that to be insulated from suffering is to be insulated in many ways from life and from the relationships that give life meaning. Kumalo, for all his sorrow and fear and little lapses in judgment, is very much alive.
Fiction, as I have said before on the blog, exercises our muscles of empathy. In reading Cry, The Beloved Country, we are given the opportunity to inhabit “the fear of a man who lives in a world not made for him, whose own world is slipping and dying, being destroyed, beyond any recall.” The end result of such empathy is not fear, but a renewed confidence that grace and love–and, by extension, courage and forgiveness and kindness and decency–rise to the challenge of those fears. Cry, The Beloved Country is a book in which genuine beauty rises out of the worst sort of ugliness. Kumalo’s world is one in which love and kindness are not luxuries, but a source of life. The same is true in our world, but, again, the padding with which we have insulated ourselves makes that truth less obvious.
One of my favorite things about the story is the elaborate courtesy with which the black South Africans treat each other. In world “not made for them,” a world that often treats them as subhuman, their almost tedious formalities and honorifics communicate to one another that they are indeed valued. The stylized humility of their courtesies seems to reflect a genuine humility–a voluntary humility–that gives the lie to the humiliations that are forced on them. That humility is best summarized, perhaps, in the formulation that is often repeated by Msimangu, a city pastor who shows Kumalo many kindnesses: “I am not kind. I am a selfish and sinful man, but God put his hands on me, that is all.”
Your library has Cry, The Beloved Country. They should be open today.