Jan De Hartog Essay - Critical Essays

De Hartog, Jan


De Hartog, Jan 1914–

A Dutch novelist and dramatist, de Hartog began his writing career as a chronicler of sea stories. He is, however, best known for his vast historical romance about the Quakers, The Peaceable Kingdom. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1.)

Walter Kerr

[The Fourposter] is such a plain affair, and its humors hew so close to the easily predictable, that it is hard to work up any honest enthusiasm for it.

Mr. de Hartog is concerned with a marriage which manages to scrape through thirty-five years and an assortment of minor tempests. The familiar landmarks are all here: the almost-errant husband, the almost-wayward son, and the ultimate despair of a mother who feels that she has come to the end of her life without having done anything but rear children. The trouble with this particular restatement of conventional, though still valid, materials is that no distinctive insight has been brought to bear on them. The details are neatly worked out; they are true so far as they go; and they do not go much farther than the standard family jokes and embarrassments which are told to visiting relatives. There is a literary dryness throughout, as though the author had resisted the storyteller's temptation to improve on the actual event, and I, at least, found the evening unnecessarily pale.

Walter Kerr, "The Screen: 'The Fourposter'," in Commonweal (copyright © 1951 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; copyright renewed © 1979 by Commonweal Publishing Co.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LV, No. 5, November 9, 1951, p. 118.

James Hilton

"The Distant Shore" is being compared to "The Caine Mutiny" and "The Cruel Sea." It is less good than either being indeed a rather loosely constructed hold-all for two different stories—first, that of the moving and anguished love affair at Westport, then the picaresque adventures of the divers, this latter section packed with thrills, studded with fascinating descriptions of seafloor topography, and pervaded with the writer's own personal philosophy, which is somewhat mystical and pantheist. There are no dull pages, whatever they contain, but there is something slightly slapdash about "The Distant Shore" which suggests that it is the work of vivid and often roguish imagination at least as much as document of war-time and post-war experience. It is certainly unflagging in its liveliness, for Mr. de Hartog has a quality that sets him in the rare minority of writers—superb narrative skill, as artlessly artful as Defoe's and as boyishly exciting as Jules Verne's. What he seems to lack is, oddly enough, the thing he has chosen to describe so brilliantly—depth beneath a shimmering surface.

James Hilton, "A Novel of the Sea: On and Under It," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation), August 24, 1952, p. 7.

Edmund Fuller

At its peak moments ["The Spiral Road"] is a shattering novel, a book that purges in its power and luminosity, and enthralls with its sweep of narrative, its exotic richness, and its occasional Rabelaisian humors. It is a shining book.

You could say that it belongs almost equally to two categories of perennial appeal—the doctor novel or the religious novel. Yet to call "The Spiral Road" either or both of these is too restricted. It is what the novel should be, a complex and intense story about almost the full gamut of human behavior, befuddlement, anguish, achievement, and quest. (p. 14)

With all these human elements, its elaborate jungle mystique (I wonder if some of it touches cliché), with its color, with its plot so large that at times it almost slips from De Hartog's hands, "The Spiral Road" (evolution is the title's reference) suggests by texture and scope a major novel in its exciting initial impact. (p. 15)

Edmund Fuller, "Jungle Salvation," in The Saturday Review, New York (copyright © 1957 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XL, No. 15, April 13, 1957, pp. 14-15.

The Times Literary Supplement

[The Spiral Road] is a vast, luxuriant sprawling examination of decay: the softening up of a young doctor's integrity, ambition and self-respect by loneliness, disillusion and sexual fantasy…. [Mr. de Hartog] has apparently determined to write an immense novel, and by standards of length alone he has succeeded.

The characters are innumerable and none of them is quite sane or real. The writing has zest but little shape or style. Mr. de Hartog, who once wrote a beautifully shaped short novel called Stella, has thrown caution to the winds, let his fertile imagination run riot and allowed himself a kind of sailor's pipe-dream of landsmen's depravity. The result is nothing if not entertaining…. [The] romanticist's myopic view of the tropical doctor's life has been corrected by some eye-opening details, and decadence and degeneration are given as many imaginative twists as fiction, rather than reality, can contrive. For, in spite of its realistic physical details, its bitter images of a disintegrating leprosy specialist, who is the real heart of the book, The Spiral Road never convinces one that it is about real people. It is a fantasy, overgrown and uncontrolled, spacious but not deep, vigorously imagined but hardly felt. It would be a pity if Mr. de Hartog were to lose his ideas of scale and perspective in a longing for sheer size. Vitality and virility of his kind are rare enough for one not to wish to see them wastefully diffused.

"Fantasy and Fable," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1957; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 2877, April 19, 1957, p. 237.

Virgilia Peterson

["The Inspector"] is less a story than a crusade. Written with Jan de Hartog's characteristic tidy craftsmanship, "The Inspector" is nonetheless and primarily a pièce a thèse….

De Hartog still remembers, along with the other horrors, the price paid by the Jews of Europe during the last war. It is therefore lest we forget that he has written this story of how in 1946 a middle-aged Dutch Police inspector smuggled a dying Jewish girl into Palestine….

Inevitably, since martyrdom tends in itself to dehumanize both those who invite it and those who have it thrust upon them, the young Jewish girl around whom and for whom this book was written remains a wraith despite every precaution her creator takes to make her real. But Inspector Jongman, so mousy outside and so lambent, within, is somehow entirely believable, since mountains have often enough been moved by mice…. But more real than the characters or their adventures is the moral indignation of de Hartog's tale, and it is this tone that justifies it.

Virgilia Peterson, "De Hartog's Romance of Modern Chivalry," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), June 26, 1960, p. 3.

Anthony Boucher

["The Inspector"] is a novel about a police inspector that is not a detective story, a novel about international pursuit and intrigue that is not a thriller, and a novel about 1946 that is as contemporary and immediate as the latest headlines about Adolf Eichmann….

[Jan de Hartog] has looked at the world about him and chosen dramatic and even melodramatic events as the proper material for a sober and touching novel of the human condition in that world. (p. 4)

This is not, in the common sense, a suspense story: the tone is subdued, the pursuit (physical and spiritual) runs relaxed at times to permit scenes of quiet charm or subtle sadness. But de Hartog's intense concern for his...

(The entire section is 247 words.)

Martin Tucker

["The Captain"] is a master's narrative of an ocean experience. In his newest sea journey, [Jan de Hartog] is in full command of his material and his ship of men….

The author's debt to Conrad and to his "The Secret Sharer" is evident, but it is a debt that is also asset and capital. De Hartog's own intimate knowledge of the sea and his extraordinary skill in pacing his narrative makes for a wonderful combination with the novel's literary allusiveness. The graphic power of the battle scenes and the undercurrents of the theme—the captain's weakening reserve and acceptance of other men's weaknesses, other men's demands—bring the reader to the depths of a real experience. His newest portrait of a...

(The entire section is 155 words.)

Pamela Marsh

The first half of "The Captain" … is as predictably exciting as a TV show. With a soothing combination of instinct, courage, and coincidence, the Dutch captain maneuvers his tugboat to England just ahead of the Nazis, contains the jealousy of his crew, sidesteps the bullying of shipowners, and survives a British sangfroid that looks more and more like cold-bloodedness.

But suddenly we are in deep waters…. What began as a successful, rollicking tale of the sea fails as soon as Mr. de Hartog tries to transform it into one of those psychological dramas with characters who act and talk tougher the weaker they feel….

[Mr. de Hartog] has an important point of view on war and...

(The entire section is 159 words.)

Richard Pollak

Jan de Hartog is that rarity, a man determined to practice what he preaches…. "The Children" is an informal, loosely written collection of "random notes" on the first several months [after he adopted two Korean children].

At its best, the book should be required reading for any couple contemplating such an adoption. It offers intelligent advice on the many pitfalls peculiar to adoptions involving Asian orphans….

Annoyingly, de Hartog insists on interlarding "The Children" with an embarrassing amount of cloying sentimentality and often irrelevant anecdotes. The aim, no doubt, was for comic relief in what is essentially a serious book. The effect, however, is to make "The...

(The entire section is 175 words.)

Martin Tucker

In his episodic story of the beginnings of the Quaker movement in England and the United States ["The Peaceable Kingdom"], de Hartog has steered each section around a person of wealth and intelligence who makes a great sacrifice through his commitment to the Quaker ideal. In the first section, Margaret Fell, who falls in love with the Quaker preacher George Fox, must exorcise the passion of sexual desire in order to achieve grace…. In the second section, the sacrificial lamb is a man who has little experience with practical affairs, yet he gives up his estate, his inheritance, his slaves and his standing in Philadelphia society to make a new home in the prairies. The other characters revolve around these two...

(The entire section is 530 words.)


[The Peaceable Kingdom] is a book of epic sweep, a book crammed with great and noble deeds of high adventure, but an epic without heroes; a saga of the gentle people called Quakers, a hymn to that of God in every man, but a book filled with rapes and violence, a bestial lynching, Indian massacres and the fetid corruption and the outrage of slavery. (pp. 220-21)

No heroes and no saints…. [Quaker leader George Fox is] a man who loves all mankind, yet one who, filled with the sense of God's power, is careless of how he affects others.

Nor does Margaret Fell, the mother of Quakerdom, appear more saintly…. [She] remains a prisoner of her upbringing….


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Ludo Abicht

In many ways, the Quaker Jan de Hartog reminds one of Graham Greene, his Roman Catholic counterpart. Both are crafty and fascinating storytellers, both are more obsessed with the forces of evil than with the power of salvation; both remain loyal to their faith yet highly critical of their religious organizations, especially of the bureaucracy, the self-righteousness and the little power games church people also play. [The Lamb's War], a kind of monographic sequel to de Hartog's broader historical work, The Peaceable Kingdom, tells the story of Laura Martens, a Dutch girl, from her experiences in a Nazi concentration camp and her "new life" as a G.I. bride in a Quaker family, to her successful career as...

(The entire section is 311 words.)