Jan de Hartog

Jan de Hartog (April 22, 1914 – September 22, 2002) was a Dutch playwright, novelist and occasional social critic who moved to the United States in the early 1960s and became a Quaker.

Jan de Hartog
Jan de Hartog (1984)
Born(1914-04-22)April 22, 1914
Haarlem, Netherlands
DiedSeptember 22, 2002(2002-09-22) (aged 88)
Houston, Texas
Pen name"F.R. Eckmar" (used infrequently)
OccupationNovelist and playwright
GenreNon-fiction, Creative non-fiction, and fiction
Subject(primarily) Seafaring stories
Notable worksHolland's Glorie
The Captain
The Peaceable Kingdom: An American Saga
The Hospital
Notable awardsTony Award
1952 For "The Fourposter" (best play)

Nominated for Nobel Prize
1972 For "The Peaceable Kingdom"

Cross of Merit
1945 For wartime Merchant Marine activities[1]
SpouseMarjorie de Hartog



Early years

Jan de Hartog was born to a Dutch Calvinist Minister and professor of theology, Arnold Hendrik, and his wife, Lucretia de Hartog (who herself was a lecturer in medieval mysticism), in 1914. He was raised in the city of Haarlem, the Netherlands.[1]

At around the age of 11, he ran away to become a cabin boy, otherwise referred to as a "sea mouse" on board a Dutch fishing boat. His father had him brought home, but shortly afterwards, Jan ran off to sea again. The experiences thus gained became material for some of his future novels, as many of his life experiences did.[2]

At 16, he briefly attended the Kweekschool voor de Zeevaart in Amsterdam, a training college for the Dutch merchant marine but was only there for a year. Per his own account, he was expelled, and told emphatically by his angry schoolmaster, "This school is not for pirates!"[3]

De Hartog was a coal shoveler on the night shifts with the Amsterdam Harbor Police until 1932. As he often had time on his hands, he began to write here.

While employed as skipper of a tour boat on the Amsterdam Canals, he wrote several mysteries featuring Inspector Gregor Boyarski of the Amsterdam Harbor Police. At this time he used a pseudonym "F.R. Eckmar" (which is euphemistically translatable as "whatever." The literal meaning of 'verrek maar' is 'drop dead,' and it is commonly used like the English expression 'go and jump in the lake') for these works which ("luckily", according to the author himself) were never translated into English.

His theater career began in the late 1930s at the Amsterdam Municipal Theater, where he acted in and wrote a play.[2]

World War II

De Hartog's career as a writer, as well as his personal life, was decisively influenced by a coincidence that occurred during World War II. In May 1940, just ten days before Nazi Germany invaded and swiftly occupied the hitherto-neutral Netherlands, de Hartog published his book Hollands Glorie (Holland's Glory, translated much later into English as Captain Jan).

The novel described the life of the highly skilled sailors on ocean-going tugboats, a specialized field of nautical enterprise in which the Dutch have always taken the lead. Without saying it in so many words, de Hartog portrayed the sailors—doing a difficult, dangerous and poorly rewarded job—as the modern successors to the bold navigators of the Dutch Golden Age.

In fact, the book's plot as such had nothing political, anti-German or anti-Nazi, the sailor protagonists' conflict being mainly with nature and with their highly paternalistic and authoritarian (and thoroughly Dutch) employers. Nevertheless, for a country undergoing the shock of invasion and occupation, the book with its outspoken assertion of and pride in Dutch identity became a bestseller in the occupied Netherlands and a focus of popular opposition to the Nazi occupation. As a result, the Gestapo took a lively interest in de Hartog himself, who had joined the non-military Dutch resistance movement,[2] performing/writing plays while assisting in the concealment and relocation of Jewish babies to avoid having them sent to concentration camps. His book was banned.[1] and he was forced into hiding, assuming the identity of an elderly woman in a nursing home. Eventually, he staged a difficult and adventure-filled escape to England.[4] His book became the best selling novel of the war years in the Netherlands.[5]

In London he became deeply involved in the community of the exiled Dutch sailors. The exiles worked with their British allies, often going on dangerous missions, with inadequately armed (or sometimes, completely unarmed) boats.

He joined the Netherlands merchant navy as a correspondent in 1943, and later served as a ship's captain for which he received Netherlands' "Cross of Merit".[1]

This experience served as the background to several of his later books such as The Captain and Stella. Stella was made into a movie, starring Sophia Loren, Trevor Howard, and William Holden under the title The Key; it also started de Hartog on the route to becoming a pacifist which later culminated when he joined the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).

After World War II

De Hartog had many hesitations about authorizing the translation of Hollands Glorie into English, and when finally he did in 1947 the English version (entitled Captain Jan) did not have as much success as the Dutch original. However, in the wake of the war he made the decision to remain in the UK; later he relocated to the USA. He also made the professional decision to write most of his later works in English, beginning with The Lost Sea (1951), which was a fictional account of his experiences working aboard ship as a boy, colloquially called a "sea mouse."[2]

Precisely because in the war years he had been regarded as close to a national hero, quite a few people in the Netherlands resented this decision to write in English and felt betrayed and abandoned by him. While the sales of his books in the English-speaking world soared, his reputation in his own homeland took somewhat of a plunge, which took years to repair.

For his part de Hartog continued to regard himself as—and take pride in being—a Dutchman, even after living several decades in America, and many of his later books had Dutch protagonists and themes. Indeed, for many people outside the Netherlands, these books became a major source of information about Dutch society, culture and modern history. In 1952, while visiting New York, he encountered a play he had written while still in hiding during the war,[2] and had sold the rights to while in England.[4] The play was called The Fourposter. A New York Times reviewer called it "the most civilized comedy we have had on marriage for years."[2] It went on to win de Hartog a Tony Award at the 6th annual Tony Awards Show for Best Play. Columbia Pictures also made The Fourposter into a partially animated movie, starring Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer. The scenes from the play were linked by cartoon sequences between them. The film was nominated for both, a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for its cinematography. Later, in 1966, it became the musical I Do! I Do!. The play also appeared under its original name at the Theatre New Brunswick in 1974.

Jan and Marjorie de Hartog took a 90-foot Dutch ship (called The Rival) and transformed it into a houseboat which they made their home. During the severe floods in the Netherlands of 1953, The Rival was transformed into a floating hospital, which de Hartog wrote about in The Little Ark.[1]

Moving to America

In the late 50s the de Hartogs decided to take The Rival to the USA, on the deck of a freighter.[2] They had difficulty locating a dock with cranes large enough to lift the houseboat from the freighter, but eventually made for Houston, Texas. They decided they liked it there, and stayed.

While Jan was out lecturing at the University of Houston on playwriting,[6] Marjorie was looking for community volunteer opportunities for both of them to participate in. She decided on Jefferson Davis County Hospital. Conditions there were bad at that time, and with the hospital being significantly underfunded, understaffed, and overcrowded, showed no sign of getting better.[1]

Jan decided to document the conditions there,[7] resulting in the non-fiction memoir The Hospital (1964), which exposed the awful conditions of Houston's charity hospitals in the 1960s. The book received a national response, but also a local response in which, within a week of the book's release, nearly four hundred citizens volunteered at the hospital.[1] It led to significant reforms of the city's indigent healthcare system through the creation of the Harris County Hospital District. It also led, however, to considerable hostility and many anonymous threats, which finally forced the de Hartogs to move back to Europe.[3]

In 1967 de Hartog wrote The Captain, which revisited his love of the sea, featuring a central character based loosely on himself called Martinus Harinxma, who had first appeared in The Lost Sea (1951). The book was a success, and Martinus would live on as a central character in several sequels.

Before starting work on the second in the Martinus series, Jan wrote of the experience of adopting his two daughters, who were Korean War orphans, in The Children, which appeared in 1969. He afterwards wrote a fictionalised account of the origin of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). The Peaceable Kingdom: An American Saga of 1972, was nominated for the Nobel Prize, and was followed eight years later by a Quaker novel, The Lamb's War (1980).

He published the next book in the Martinus series, The Commodore, in 1986, while living in "The Walled Garden" in Somerset, England, and it was followed by The Centurion (1989), which explored an interest that he and his wife had become involved in: dowsing. In the novel, Martinus Harinxma dabbled with dowsing and was led on a journey that followed in the footsteps of a Roman centurion. The real story, in terms of researching and writing this book, was not much different from the book itself, with the exception of fictional elements used to carry the story along.

In 1993, Jan and Marjorie returned to Houston with minimum publicity, to a much improved atmosphere. Shortly afterward, he returned to the Quaker theme to write the last in the series, The Peculiar People in 1992.[3]

This was followed by his last fully completed novel, The Outer Buoy: A Story of the Ultimate Voyage in 1994, which was once again a Martinus Harinxma novel, which expressed quite clearly Jan de Hartog's own fascination with becoming old, a fascination with inner explorations of the mind, and perhaps even a desire to rest.

In 1996, Jan de Hartog was chosen to be honored as the annual "Special Guest" at the Netherlands Film Festival.

Six years later in 2002 Jan de Hartog died at the age of 88. Appropriately, his ashes were taken to sea on an ocean-going tugboat, the SMITWIJS SINGAPORE, and scattered on the surface of the sea at position 52.02.5 N – 04.05.0 E at 13.10 hrs LT by his wife, Marjorie, and his son, Nick, while other family members spread flowers at the site.[8]

A few years later, Marjorie de Hartog decided to collate and edit a short story that her husband had been working on some time ago, in the hope of releasing it in his memory. A View of the Ocean was published in 2007, and was the story, in essence, of Jan de Hartog's own mother's death, which reveals his first contact with Quakers.


Jan de Hartog wrote many of his plays, books, and magazine articles in Dutch. Some of his plays and books were adapted as movies. It is the intent of this section to document those of his works that were published in English (including some translated from the original Dutch versions by other parties).

Books in English (incomplete)

Adaptations of his works



  • The Fourposter (Play on TV) (1955) - 1hr 30min - Directed by Clark Jones and aired on NBC, July 25, 1955, as an episode of the 'Producers' Showcase Series' whose tagline reads "Bringing the best of Broadway to the 21-inch screen".
  • The Four Poster, 1964 Australian TV play directed by James Upshaw


  1. Imagination & Spirit: A Contemporary Quaker Reader, by C.Michale Curtis, J. Brent Bill, page 152
  2. New York Times - Sep 24, 2002
  3. The Quaker Liar Archived 2007-07-15 at the Wayback Machine.
  4. WeberStudies Volume 4.1 - Spring 1987
  5. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-08-16. Retrieved 2011-06-15.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  6. Lanham, Fritz (24 September 2002). "Deaths: Jan de Hartog, controversial Dutch-born author". Houston Chronicle. Retrieved 3 December 2019.
  7. Gonzales, J. R. "The Hospital". Handbook of Texas Online. Texas State Historical Association. Retrieved 3 December 2019.
  8. Biography of Jan de Hartog Archived 2006-06-21 at the Wayback Machine in the Daily Shipping Newsletter
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