Alan Paton was born on January 11, 1903 in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. After graduating from Maritzburg College in 1918, he studied at the University of Natal, where he graduated with distinction in physics. After leaving school, Paton became a science teacher in 1925. For three years he taught at Ixopo High School, then moved to Pietermaritzburg to teach at Maritzburg College. In 1928 Paton married Doris Olive Francis, and two years later they had their first son, David. A second son, Jonathan, was born in 1936. Even early in his career Paton took a strong interest in race relations, joining the South African Institute of Race Relations in 1930.
In 1935 he left his teaching position to become the principal of the Diepkloof Reformatory for delinquent urban African boys near Johannesburg. During this period, Paton continued to work on behalf of race relations: in 1942 he is nominated to the Anglican Diocesan Commission to inquire into church and race relations in South Africa, while he also wrote a series of articles concerning crime and punishment and penal reform for Forum.
Paton wrote Cry, the Beloved Country, which was published in February of 1948, during a time in which he studied penal institutions in Europe, the United States and Canada. Several months after the publication of the novel, the National Party came to power in South Africa and instituted apartheid. The publication of this novel, which was a great success, allowed Paton to resign as principal of the reformatory to devote himself fully to his writing. Cry, the Beloved Country was soon adapted into a musical, "Lost in the Stars," by composer Kurt Weill and a film directed by Zoltan Korda on whose screenplay Paton contributed.
His second novel, Too Late the Phalarope, was published in 1953 while Paton worked at a tuberculosis settlement. During this time, Paton began to take a more active interest in politics, becoming the vice-president of the Liberal Party and, in 1956, the party chairman. Paton eventually became National President of the Liberal Party until 1968, when the government forces the Liberal Party to disband under the Prohibition of Interference Act that prohibited non-racial political parties. During his term with the Liberal Party, Paton gave evidence to mitigate the treason sentence for Nelson Mandela during his 1964 trial.
Paton also published several other non-fiction works, including The Land and the People of South Africa (1955), Hope for South Africa (1958) and The People Wept (1958). In 1959 he wrote "The Last Journey," a play about the missionary David Livingston, as well as The Christian Approach to Racial Problems in the Modern World.
In 1967 Doris Olive Paton died, and two years later Alan Paton married Anne Margaret Hopkins. Paton continued to write throughout his life, publishing a third novel, Ah, but Your Land is Beautiful, in 1981 and two of a projected three volumes of his autobiography in 1980 and, posthumously, in 1988. Paton died in April of 1988 at Lintrose, Botha's Hill in Natal.