Isak Dinesen

Isak Dineson (Karen Blixen)

Isak Dinesen (April 17, 1885 – September 7, 1962) was the pen name of the Danish author best known for Out of Africa (1937), a memoir of her life as the owner of a coffee plantation in Kenya.

Karen von Blixen-Finecke, née Karen Christenze Dinesen was born a Baroness into a family of aristocrats, merchants, and landed gentry. Her father was a peripatetic traveler, military man, politician, and writer who committed suicide when Karan was just nine years old.

Karen showed an early interest in writing, creating stories, plays, and poetry. After some early success in publishing stories, she put writing aside. In 1903 she started to study art in Copenhagen, much to her family’s disapproval.

 

Marriage, a coffee plantation, and a love affair

Karen became engaged to Baron Bror Blixen-Finecke, a second cousin, in 1912. Upon their arrival in Mombassa, Kenya, they were married, and together, they ran 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.

Her 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.”

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 1985 movie

Out of Africa, Dinesen’s best-known work, a memoir
became an award-winning 1985 film of the same name
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On her own, and the start of a writing career

In 1921, Bror Blixen left Karen and shortly thereafter, they divorced. She 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 after Blixen left, 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. In 1934, Seven Gothic Tales, a collection of stories she had written in English. 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 was followed, as mentioned above, by Out of Africa (1937).

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Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen

Isak Dinesen’s most enduring work, Out of Africa

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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 fondess 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.”

 

Later years

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 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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Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen

Isak Dinesen page on Amazon


More about Isak Dinesen

On this site

Major Works

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 Tales (1942)
  • Last Tales (1957)
  • Anecdotes of Destiny (1958; includes Babette’s Feast)
  • Ehrengard (1962; posthumous)
  • Carnival: Entertainments and Posthumous Tales (1977)

Biographies about Isak Dinesen

  • Tania: A Biography and Memoir of Isak Dinesen by Permenia Migel (1987)
  • Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller by Judith Thurman (1995)

More Information

Articles, News, Etc.

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Marilyn Monroe, Isak Dinesen, and Carson McCullers

Marilyn Monroe, Isak Dinesen, and Carson McCullers

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