Jan de Hartog: Activist and Storyteller

In 1963, tiny, unprogrammed Live Oak Meeting in Houston, Texas, started having its Sunday meetings for worship in Jeff Davis Hospital, a charity institution of the city. The meeting’s move was to support a concern by Jan and Marjorie de Hartog, who had been led to volunteer as orderlies in this hospital, which primarily served the city’s African American population. Jan first wrote a series of vivid editorials on the ghastly state of the hospital and then a book called The Hospital, which focused unflattering national and international attention on Houston. As a result, the de Hartogs were discouraged from continuing because they aired the Space City’s dirty laundry at a time when Houston was reveling in the national spotlight with its new boom town image—the Astrodome, the astronauts, and oil glamour.

Jan and Marjorie de Hartog lived an exotic and crusading life. They lived the life many have dreamed of—full of adventure and full-flush living, yet Quaker to the core, continually directed to the cause of helping others. Famous in the non-Quaker world for penning such works as the classic play The Fourposter and novels like The Spiral Road and The Captain, Jan de Hartog died on September 22, 2002, at the age of 88, having returned with Marjorie to Houston 11 years earlier.

Jan and Marjorie had been married less than a year when they first moved to Houston, and they had only recently become involved with the Quakers there. Jan’s mother, Lucretia, although not herself a Quaker, had been a member of the Wider Quaker Fellowship as well as a close friend of Emma Cadbury and a scholar of medieval mysticism; she found Friends very compatible. At the time he wrote The Hospital, Jan had only recently nursed Lucretia through her final days with stomach cancer.

Among Friends, The Hospital is not what Jan de Hartog is best known for. His epic historical novel about the Quakers, The Peaceable Kingdom, won him a nomination for the Nobel Prize, and it caused many a seeker to try the peculiar Quaker persuasion. During his long career as a writer, his books tended to focus on four large, interlocking subjects: the sea, World War II, his work of service, and Quakers.

A preacher’s son who was born in the Netherlands, Jan had been leery of religion, although his books had always had a moral and pacifist bent. When Lucretia died, Jan wished to donate her library of books on mysticism to the Amsterdam Quaker meeting. When the books were first placed in the meetinghouse, Jan and Marjorie attended a meeting for worship as part of a “farewell” service for Lucretia. At the time Marjorie, 14 years his junior, was trying to come to a decision about whether to marry Jan after seven years of involvement. “When I went in I felt like a mill pond, my mind all in turmoil,” she recalled. “During the meeting, my mind settled, the water became perfectly still. I was certain after that.”

Marjorie was so moved that she, along with Jan, embraced Quakerism. They were not married under the care of a meeting, but their marriage was blessed by nearby Manhassat (N.Y.) Meeting. “When we entered the meeting gathering in silence, we sensed such radiance, such indescribable, luminous stillness and peace, that it became to us a real, almost physical experience of the presence of God, if He be defined as ‘An infinite ocean of Light and Love.'”

Within months of their convincement, with the zealousness of a convert, Jan consumed every Quaker journal and history he could find. Although Live Oak Meeting in Houston was the first one in which they sought clearness to become members, the de Hartogs’ first regular meeting was in Florida. At the time they were living in the Everglades on their boat, and every Sunday drove 140 miles roundtrip to attend.

Later, Jan and Marjorie helped found Brussels Meeting, as well as the international Quaker center located there. Jan wrote and narrated a history of the Quakers for Dutch TV, taking the film crew to sites of Quaker importance in England and the United States, from Swarthmore Hall to the route of the Underground Railroad. When the film crew went to the Tower of London, they visited the room where William Penn had been imprisoned. It contained the four-poster bed that he had slept in, which, in the style of a museum, had a little cord barring access. But as soon as the hulking Beefeater guard who was giving the tour left the room, Jan pushed the cord aside and lay on the bed. There he had a remarkable insight. Staring up at the bed’s intricately carved canopy, Jan realized that William Penn could have conceived the layout of Philadelphia right there. The carved wood aptly pictured the town layout, with the city hall in the center and the bedposts representing the four surrounding square parks.

Growing up in a conservative Calvinist sea village in Holland (where, Jan said, “they even said Jesus could be too liberal at times”), Jan ran away from home twice to be-come the cabin boy on a fishing boat. Depending on which account he is telling, this boyhood experience was either “a happy one” or “the saddest time I ever lived through.” At age 16 he spent a brief time attending Am-sterdam Naval College before being ex-pelled for insubordination—”This school is not for pirates!” scolded his teacher.

Holland’s Glory, published in 1940 when he was 26, came out just as the Nazis occupied Holland. About life on the ocean-going tugs on which he worked, Holland’s Glory was seized upon as symbolizing the Dutch spirit. It sold more than 500,000 copies (to “pretty much everyone in Holland,” Jan observed), and he became a national hero. Afterwards, I gave lectures, which were immensely successful. Sold out houses everywhere. Sowing Quaker oats like crazy. The war was going on, but not for me.

One day I was heading for another glorious lecture somewhere in the provinces. I got to the box office and there was a sign saying, “Jews not admitted.” That started it all. Holland was occupied by the Germans. They were very severe, they picked up all Jews, gradually, and deported them to Auschwitz—which we didn’t know about, we thought they were in work camps in Poland. The desperate families, if they had small children, tried to place them with other people to keep them safe.

At one of my lectures somebody came up and handed me a baby, and said, “You are a famous man and this is the baby of a Jewish couple about to be deported. Please, please place it somewhere where it might be safe.” I grew up in a fishing village on the Zuyder Zee, heavily Calvinist. That was a safe community for babies because nobody would be able to penetrate it—except they wanted no part of it because these were Jewish babies and [they said] the Jews had crucified Christ.

Nevertheless, I went with the baby to people I knew there. While the men carried on a theological debate one of the women took it—and that was the beginning. We placed 20 or 30 babies, all in that one village. They grew up and became little fishermen’s children.

During the Nazi occupation of Holland, Jan spent some time hiding in a nursing home in Amsterdam, where he was known to the other occupants only as a bedridden old woman named Mrs. Vliegendart. His meals were brought upstairs by a staff member who was in on the deceit. The portions were, of course, meant for a frail old woman, and he protested that he was starving to death—couldn’t they bring him more? Well, yes, the attendant said, perhaps she could smuggle him some more food in a bedpan. Only if it’s a new bedpan, he replied.

Confined to this four-poster bed, he started dreaming of the life of marriage and domesticity he would have had if only he hadn’t been killed in the war. And thus was written The Four-poster, a classic, sentimental tale of marriage concocted entirely out of the fantasies of a young, single man. During this time he also wrote a book that many years later appeared in English as The Spiral Road, in response to the government’s commission to produce a book about the heroic work of the Dutch Medical Service doctors working in the colonial Dutch East Indies. Based on stories he heard from the doctors themselves during marathon late-night drinking sessions, it was an intense, intricate work, apparently not at all what the government had envisioned.

Jan dictated his material, oral storyteller style, which comes across in the ease of the writer’s voice. Marjorie typed up the tapes and then reworked and edited the material. His style and tone range widely from book to book, from the overwrought intensity of The Spiral Road to the gentle reminiscences of A Sailor’s Life or Waterways of the New World.

Jan’s books tell stories, almost always with a philosophical underpinning that makes sense of it all. His books are supremely human: inquisitive, compassionate, and passionate about the human dilemma, especially in our search for how to live a nonviolent life in an all-too-often violent world. In books about the sea, he describes how as soon as the captain assumes command, he’s possessed by an intuitive ability to bond with his ship and discern how best to steer her, like a mantle of mystical wisdom he’s inherited from all the sea captains who went before. In his books about Quakers, Jan gives a compelling description of how in different perilous or troubled situations Friends were blessed with leadings, that instinctive mystical sense, which he often links to those Quaker elders who had gone before. “The Quaker intuition has a supernatural aspect to it,” he once stated. “Or maybe it’s the same, and the Quakers just give it a fancier name.”

In the Quaker trilogy, The Peaceable Kingdom (1972), The Lamb’s War (1980), and The Peculiar People (1992), Jan did for Friends what he’d been doing with his own life stories, painting a beautiful and lively picture of acts blessed with grace and lives given in simple service to the biddings of the Inner Light. He vividly recreates the horrors of Lancaster Prison, where he portrays Margaret Fell voluntarily confining herself to care for three lost children. He conveys the stillness and certainty of John Woolman, humbly preaching to an empty auditorium about the wrongness of slave ownership.

But he also paints a picture of the missteps, confusions, and ironies of Quaker experience in a way an outsider might not dare. As admirably as he portrays Margaret Fell, she can also come off as an arrogant lady of privilege. In The Peaceable Kingdom, one soon encounters slave-owning Quakers. Later, a Quaker maiden attempts to reach out to that of God in two Indian assailants, only to be raped and murdered.

Throughout Jan’s life he embellished the theme of men preaching and women practicing. In The Peaceable Kingdom, George Fox is but a shadow figure; it’s the robust Margaret Fell who sets the epic afire. “George Fox is the kind of character who will write in his journal, ‘The spirit of God thundered mightily among us,'” Jan wrote with thinly disguised distaste, “meaning that he himself had ministered.” In contrast, his favorite quote of Margaret Fell’s is “Theology divides, service unites.” While it is George Fox who wrote the journals that served as the beacon to his new Religious Society, it was Margaret Fell who edited them. This was no mere proofreading, Jan contends, but a thorough recasting of George Fox’s message. She switched the emphasis from miracles (including George Fox’s scrupulously kept list of divine retributions for nay-sayers) to the mystical core and its flower of service.

Children and babies were an ever-present call to service in Jan and Marjorie’s lives. During the week of Friends General Conference in 1966, news came of the bombing of civilian centers in Hanoi and Haiphong. A group of back-benchers—as young activist Friends were called—charged off to Washington with plans to launch protests and lie down on runways in front of the senators’ airplanes. Those rather more seasoned Quakers remaining went into meeting for worship.

Afterwards a number of Friends formed the Meeting for the Sufferings of Vietnamese Children, which proposed that Quakers bring back children orphaned by the war, and place them for adoption with Quaker couples. Jan and Marjorie, working with Welcome House, an international adoption agency founded by writer Pearl Buck, helped to establish a temporary home for refugee children near Pendle Hill in Wallingford, Pa., in a house lent by Betty Furnas, widow of Earlham chancellor Paul Furnas.

Jan loved to tell stories about the Quakers. He said that since we have no canon or designated ministers, much of our guidance comes from the stories passed down about weighty Friends. One such tale involves the 19th-century Quaker Levi Coffin, the “president” of the Underground Railroad. “Levi . . . always had escaped slaves in the house. The place where he put them was behind the mantle bed. He wheeled the bed away and there was a little door and behind it a whole apartment for whoever came in. The sheriff would come, and ask, ‘Mr. Coffin, do you have any slaves in the house?’ and he would say, ‘No,’ because the moment they entered his house, they were no longer slaves. He was nearly read out of meeting because the Quaker movement then felt that to help slaves escape to Canada did not minister to the owners.”

Jan was a writer but also a storyteller, and a reveler in life. He was gifted with the ability to convey that quickened spirit of life to others through his writing. And after all the transfixing stories and rowdy, inspiring novels, it is this presence that matters. As he once said, “Perhaps at some point in time we will not be remembered for what we have said, but for what we were.”

Ann Walton Sieber

Ann Walton Sieber is a journalist and a member of Live Oak Meeting in Houston, Tex. This is an abridgement of "Jan de Hartog: A Captain on the Ocean of Light and Love," which appeared inThe Best of Friends, ed. Chuck Fager, vol. 1, 1998, pp. 24-50. The quoted material in this article comes from the author's interviews with Jan and Marjorie de Hartog. An obituary for Jan de Hartog appeared in Friends Journal in August 2003.