A Sailor’s Grave for Captain Jan

Dutch and American writer Jan de Hartog

The Dutch novelist and playwright Jan de Hartog, who died in Houston, Texas, in September 2002, was born in Haarlem in 1914, the son of a professor of Calvinist theology and a Quaker mother. A born rebel, he ran away to sea at the age of ten. In the thirties he held a variety of odd jobs in Amsterdam, while publishing detective stories (under the pen name F.R. Eckmar) and plays.

Then in October 1940, shortly after the Germans had occupied the Netherlands, he published what was to become his greatest success: the novel Hollands Glorie (1940), a tale of Dutch derring-do on the high seas. Buying this novel with its defiant title quickly became an act of symbolic resistance, and turned it into one of the great bestsellers of twentieth-century Dutch literature. When 300,000 copies had been sold, De Hartog had to go into hiding because he refused to join the Kultuurkamer, the Nazi-led writers’ guild. In 1943 he managed to escape from occupied Holland via France and Switzerland to Spain and freedom in England. The story of this dangerous journey went untold until 1999, when he published The Escape (De Vlucht), written with the help of his wife Marjorie.

Hollands Glorie is the story of Captain Jan Wandelaar and his ocean-going tug and how they transported the cranes, dredgers, hoppers, docks and sluice gates which the Dutch used to build harbours and dams all over the world, in Argentina and the Falklands, in the Middle East and the Dutch East Indies. The novel, written in a vigorous and salty, non-literary style, follows Jan Wandelaar’s career from common sailor to captain of his own ship and his epic struggle with the arch-capitalist Kwel, who exploits and abuses the sailors who work for him. Like the socialist playwright Herman Heijermans in his play The Good Hope (Op hoop van zegen, 1900), De Hartog’s novel paints a sharply critical portrait of the class divide in pre-war Dutch society, pitting honest Dutch sailors against the dirty tricks of the greedy company owners. In the end Wandelaar wins and takes over from Kwel, with the aim of protecting the interests of the sailors and especially of the Dutch tugboat industry against foreign competitors.

After the war De Hartog scored a second great bestseller with his trilogy God’s Beggars (Gods geuzen). First published in 1947-49, it had been reprinted ten times by 1967, was translated into English in 1957 and made into a Hollywood movie, The Spiral Road, in 1962. It tells the story of young Dr Anton Zorgdrager and his heroic adventures in the Colonial Health Service of the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia). Zorgdrager’s first assignment is to fight a plague epidemic in Borneo, and around him De Hartog paints a whole world of colonial characters and episodes — the old Sultan playing billiards in his palace; Dr Brits-Jansen, the subject of many tall stories, an outspoken atheist and the world’s greatest authority on leprosy; and the heroic Captain Willem Waterreus of the Salvation Army whose wife, once a prostitute in Amsterdam, is now a leper dying in Java. In the course of the novel Zorgdrager goes through a soul-wrenching, existentialist battle with religious doubt. Its climax is the gripping tale of tropical madness in the closing chapters, which was separately published as ‘Duel with a Witch Doctor’ in Reader’s Digest Condensed Books in 1961. Set on the wild coast of New Guinea, it recounts the spiritual battle between young Zorgdrager and the Papuan witch doctor Burubi whose black magic slowly drives Zorgdrager insane, causing him to run off into the jungle and degenerate into a naked ape-man, until he is, finally, saved by the white magic, the true religion, of his friend the Salvation Army Captain.

Despite these two great successes, or perhaps because of them, De Hartog — whose model had been the American novelist and social critic Upton Sinclair (1878-1968) — was seen as ‘just’ a popular storyteller.

His novels received little critical acclaim in the Netherlands, not least because his heroic romanticism and passionate religious concerns were perceived as simplistic in the prevailing intellectual climate of post-war Holland. In retaliation, in 1950 De Hartog, defending his own craftsmanship and ‘unrelenting, shameless honesty’, launched a scathing attack on what he called the pathological degeneration of the Dutch highbrows of the day — writers like Simon Vestdijk, Anna Blaman and W.F. Hermans, no less — whom he described as a bunch of ‘psychopaths, spotty adolescents, lesbian women… and bloated masturbators.’

After this clash De Hartog left the Netherlands and — like other Dutch authors such as Dola de Jong, Leo Vroman and Hans Koning — settled in the United States. He decided to write in English, and from the start this was a great success. In 1951 his play The Fourposter — about his love affair with Dutch actress Lily Bouwmeester — was turned into a musical, I Do, I Do, and became a hit on Broadway, where in 1952 it was chosen as best play of the New York season. That same year The Fourposter was made into a movie, and in Minneapolis I Do, I Do began a successful run of 22 years. Another of his plays, Skipper next to God, was also made into a film, The Inspector (1961); in it, after the war, a Dutch policeman rescues a Jewish girl from an ex-Nazi and helps to smuggle her to Palestine.

But what really made him famous was his novel The Hospital (1964), which offered a hard-hitting critique, inspired by his Quaker beliefs, of the scandalous conditions in the Houston hospital for poor and black people. Eventually, De Hartog’s campaign for healthcare reform led to his appointment as extraordinary professor of gerontology and, early in 2002, to an honorary doctorate of the University of Houston. In 1969, in a Quaker protest against the Vietnam war, he launched a campaign for the adoption of the countless war orphans from that country with his book The Children. In the seventies this was followed by his great four-volume historical novel about the Quakers in the United States, The Peaceable Kingdom (1972-1975).

But the sea was really his first love, and it always played a central role in his work, both in fiction and in film. In The Lost Sea (1951) he wrote of his adventures when as a ten-year-old he ran away to sea. In 1952 the English translation of Hollands Glorie came out as Captain Jan. A Story of Ocean Tugboats. His sailors’ novel Stella (1950) was made into the film The Key (1958), starring William Holden and Sophia Loren. In the sixties his novel The Captain (1966) sold more than one million copies. In 1971, his fifth Hollywood film, The Little Ark, told the story of two war orphans and their pets who are trapped in a flood, but sail to safety in a houseboat. The film was based on his novel of 1953, the year of the great floods that devastated the Netherlands.

In December 2002, De Hartog’s ashes were scattered in the North Sea, not far from the coast of his native Holland.

By Reinier Salverda

First published in The Low Countries, 2003