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Isak Dinesen (April 17, 1885 – September 7, 1962) was a Danish author best known for Out of Africa (1937), a now-controversial memoir of her life as the owner of a coffee plantation in colonial Kenya of the 1920s.
She’s also considered a master of short-form fiction. One of her best known collections is Seven Gothic Tales, and a standout short story (turned film) is “Babette’s Feast” (1958).
Though admired as a master storyteller, contemporary reconsiderations of her work shed light on the inherent racism in her portrayals of the Africans she lived amongst during the colonial period. This issue will be discussed later in this brief biography. A complex personality, Dinesen’s place in modern literature continues to be debated.
Early years and education
Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke, born Karen Christenze Dinesen, was born into a family of aristocrats, merchants, and landed gentry. Her father was a peripatetic traveler, military man, politician, and writer who committed suicide when Karen was just nine or ten years old. Her mother was left to raise their five children alone.
Karen showed an early interest in writing, creating stories, plays, and poetry. Her stories, which she began to write down at age eight, helped allay some of the unhappiness of her childhood, and were also read for the amusement of her sisters.
In 1903 she started to study art in Copenhagen, first at a school of design, and later at the Danish Royal Academy of Art. Though she didn’t pursue art as a career, she felt this training was valuable to her in learning to observe deeply.
She later wrote that “painting has constantly revealed the true nature of the world to me. I have always had difficulty in seeing what a landscape really looks like unless I have been given a key to it by a great painter.”
Marriage, a coffee plantation, and a love affair
Karen became engaged to Baron Bror Blixen-Finecke, a second cousin, and they married in 1914. They moved to Mombassa, Kenya, and together, they started a coffee plantation. Not long after, she discovered that she had contracted syphilis from her husband, which would continue to be an underlying condition for much of her life.
She returned to Europe briefly in 1915 to be treated, then returned to Africa. She and her husband bought a larger farm not far from Nairobi. The marriage was unhappy from the start, and the couple divorced in 1921.
Karen stayed on and ran the coffee farm by herself, which was considered unusual for a woman of her time. For all the difficulty she experiences in running this enterprise alone, she also found it liberating. She reflected on this time:
“Here at long last one was in a position not to give a damn for all the conventions, here was a new kind of freedom which until then one had only found in dreams.” Her position gave her not only freedom, but status in the colonial society. And here is where she is faulted, for her freedom came at the expense of Africans and was experienced through her privilege.
It was in the midst of this that Karen fell in love with Denys Finch-Hatton, a British soldier and planter. Their turbulent affair has been immortalized in the 1985 film, Out of Africa, starring an accurately accented Meryl Streep, with Robert Redford as Finch-Hatton.
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Out of Africa, Dinesen’s best-known work,
became an award-winning 1985 film of the same name
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A return to Denmark and the work of a storyteller
Karen continued her on-again, off-again affair with Finch-Hatton until his death in a plane crash in 1929. It left her devastated. She stayed in Africa until 1931, running the farm on her own, despite financial difficulties and drought. When the farm’s fortunes collapsed in 1931, she returned to her family home in Denmark.
Soon after returning to Denmark Karen began to use the nom de plume Isak Dinesen, though it was actually only a partial pen name; Dinesen was, after all, her original surname. In 1934, Seven Gothic Tales, a collection of stories she had written in English, was published. Of the stories, she said:
“Reality had met me … in such an ugly shape, that I have no wish to come into contact with it again. Somewhere in me a dark fear was still crouching and I took refuge within the fantastic like a distressed child in his book of fairy tales.”
Seven Gothic Tales became a surprising success in the U.S., even becoming a Book-of-the-Month-Club selection. It set the stage for the thematic character of her fiction, which was an amalgam of the real and the mythic, and incorporating elements of Persian and West Indian exotica.
Storytelling is actually a part of some of her stories, that is, stories are told within the stories; and characters are sometimes archetypes rather than fully fleshed-out people. She wrote of her work:
“I belong to the ancient, idle, wild, and useless tribe, perhaps I am even one of the last members of it, who, for many thousands of years, in all countries and parts of the world, has, now and again, stayed for a time among the hard working honest people in real life, and sometimes has thus been fortunate enough to create another sort of reality for them, which, in some way or another, has satisfied them. I am a storyteller.”
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Isak Dinesen’s most enduring work, Out of Africa
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Out of Africa: A contemporary reconsideration
Dinesen’s seventeen years in Kenya, or what was then called British East Africa, became the basis of what remains her best-known work, the memoir Out of Africa (1937). It begins with the simple yet memorable line: “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.”
The memoir covers her years in Africa, from 1914 to 1931. There she had a four-thousand acre coffee plantation in the hills of Nairobi. When she and her husband separated, she stayed on to manage the farm herself.
During those years she was frequently visited by her lover, the big-game hunter Denys Finch-Hatton. For his amusement, she would make up stories “like Scheherazade.” In Africa, “I learned how to tell tales,” she recalled many years later. “The natives have an ear still. I told stories constantly to them, all kinds.”
Not a few contemporary critics and scholars have charged that Out of Africa is an out-of-date work, almost and anathema in post-colonial times. The way Dinesen refers to “the natives” is seen as disrespectful, and often downright demeaning. A 2017 essay in Quartz Africa by Abdi Natif Dahir, “Celebrating Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa Shows Why White Savior Tropes Still Exist,” argues:
“Since the publication of Blixen’s book in 1937, she has remained an important—and lasting—fixture in the study of Kenya’s colonial history. Her image was also solidified globally by the 1985 Oscar award-winning movie adaptation …
Yet given the criticisms leveled against Blixen and her portrayal of the Africans who lived on her farm, it was shocking to hear her openly racist ideas and choice of words regurgitated without examination at the museum—by a Kenyan tour guide. Who, exactly, were the ‘natives’?
To read Out of Africa is to read a string of loosely-connected stories that are mostly unified by one theme: the inferiority of the African being. Throughout the book, Blixen uses animal imageries and nature references to illustrate her points about the “squatters” who lived on her land.
The Kikuyu and Maasai communities are called ‘primitive,’ a ‘flock of sheep’ who are ‘on friendly terms with destiny’ and can barely plan for the future.”
Leah Wolfson, in ScholarBlogs, similarly argues:
“In light of postcolonial African nations seeking to forge an identity and literature of their own, Blixen’s views, and particularly her novels of Africa, came under increased scrutiny. Kenyan novelist and critic Ngugi wa Thiong’o refers to Blixen in his essay ‘Literature and Society.’
He sees her as a racist author who tries to ‘define the colonized world for the European colonizer’. He points to Blixen’s repeated use of animal imagery when describing Africans.
In her depiction of her servant Kamante, Ngugi sees Blixen’s comparison to the animal as extreme insult. He details a passage comparing Kamante’s actions to, ‘a civilized dog, that has lived for a long time with people, will place a bone on the floor before you, as a present.'”
Much of contemporary knowledge of Out of Africa is filtered through familiarity the award-winning film starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, whose greater focus on Dinesen’s fraught love affair with Denys Finch Hatton. One thing most critics and scholars agree upon is that Dinesen was a master storyteller, but her legacy is complicated. As her biography on Post Colonial Studies states,
“Karen Blixen remains a complex figure in the writing and history of colonial Africa. Author, storyteller, and early colonizer, she helped to define Africa and its people for the many Europeans who read her novels, chiefly Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass.
Criticism of her work frequently shifts from admiration of her form to outrage at her portrayal of Africans. Karen Blixen’s complicated life and work continue to be studied, debated, and questioned in light of both the colonial society she inhabited and the modern reality of a postcolonial world.”
Later books: Winter’s Tales and others
Building on her reputation as Isak Dinesen, she produced a number of well-regarded books, continuing mainly with short-form fiction and memoir. These included Winter’s Tales (1942), Last Tales (1957), and Shadows on the Grass (1960). The latter is also a memoir of her years in Africa. Ehrengard, a novella, was published posthumously in 1963.
Dinesen had a fondness and perhaps even felt a debt of gratitude to the American reading public. In a 1956 interview in The Paris Review, she related:
“When I came back from Africa I had lost all the money I had when I married, because the farm didn’t pay you know. I asked my brother to finance me for two years while I prepared Seven Gothic Tales and I told him that at the end of two years I’d be on my own.
When the manuscript was ready I went to England and one day at luncheon there was the Editor, Mr. Huntington, and I said ‘Please, I have a manuscript and I wish you’d look at it.’
He said, ‘What is it?’ and when I replied ‘A book of short stories,’ he threw up his hands and cried ‘No!’ and I begged ‘Won’t you even look at it?’ and he said ‘A book of short stories by an unknown writer? No hope!’
Then I sent it to America and it was taken right away by Robert Haas who published it, and the general public took it and liked it, and they have always been faithful.”
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Marilyn Monroe, Isak Dinesen, and Carson McCulleres in the late 1950s
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Isak Dinesen continued to suffer from the effect of syphilis into her later years. Her treatments had contained the illness, but never completely cured it.
Despite her frailty, she was able to enjoy a long visit to the United States in 1959. It was during this time that she met Carson McCullers, and the two authors had an extravagant lunch at McCuller’s home in Nyack, New York that also included Marilyn Monroe.
Stomach ulcers and anxiety also plagued the author throughout the years. When she died at age 77 in 1962 at Rungstedlund, her family estate, the cause was thought to be malnutrition.
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Isak Dinesen page on Amazon*
More about Isak Dinesen
On this site
Dinesen, aka Karen Blixen, produced many works, including unpublished plays, stories and poems that are in her archive at the Royal Danish Library. Here are some of the best known among her many works:
- Seven Gothic Tales (1934 – U.S. publication)
- Out of Africa (1937 in Denmark; 1938 in U.S.)
- Winter’s Tale (1942)
- Last Tales (1957)
- Anecdotes of Destiny (1958; includes Babette’s Feast)
- Ehrengard (1962; posthumous)
- Carnival: Entertainments and Posthumous Tales (1977; posthumous)
Biographies and criticism
- The World of Isak Dinesen by Eric O. Johannesson (1961)
- Isak Dinesen and Karen Blixen: the Mask and the Reality by Donald Hannah (1971)
- Tania: A Biography and Memoir of Isak Dinesen by Permenia Migel (1987)
- Isak Dinesen and the Engendering of Narrative by Susan Hardy Aiken (1990)
- Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller by Judith Thurman (1995)
More Information and sources
- Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen on Scholar Blogs at Emory University
- Reader discussions of Dinesen’s books on Goodreads
- In Search of Karen Blixen’s Kenya
- Lunch with Carson McCullers, Isak Dinesen, and Marilyn Monroe
- Karen Blixen Museum– Nairobi, Kenya
- Karen Blixen Museum– Rungstedlund, Denmark
- Karen Blixen Coffee Garden – Niarobi, Kenya
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