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 now-controversial memoir of her life as the owner of a coffee plantation in Kenya. She is 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).

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.

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, 
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. 

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Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen

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-HattonFor 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.”

 

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 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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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; posthumous)

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

Visit

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Marilyn Monroe, Isak Dinesen, and Carson McCullers

Marilyn Monroe, Isak Dinesen, and Carson McCullers

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2 Responses to “Isak Dinesen”

  1. Totally taken by the encounter with this web page.
    So proud of women heritage. Powerful writers who have left a footprint on Planet Earth.
    I always admired Isak Dinesen; Out of Africa is especially in my heart. I have visited Nyack, New York to
    see the house of Carson McCullers. I already knew Isak Dinesen and Marilyn Monroe visited Carson’s dwelling.
    It is a collector’s item! I already signed with you. It opens my soul to new adventures within. These women have left a mark and guide us with such strength that it is a blessing. Warm regards.

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