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Out of Africa | Study Guide

Isak Dinesen

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Isak Dinesen | Biography


Isak Dinesen was one of the pen names of Danish author Karen Christence Dinesen. She was born on April 17, 1885, on her family's estate near Copenhagen. A child with a liberated nature, she primarily identified with her father, Wilhelm Dinesen, and his free-thinking family. Wilhelm had a military career and lived for a few years as a fur trapper among American Indians in Wisconsin. It was rumored that he fathered a daughter in America. Suffering from syphilis, Wilhelm committed suicide in 1895. Karen, traumatized at the age of 10 by his death, memorialized her beloved father's far-ranging curiosity, his open and romantic nature, and his sympathies for indigenous peoples in her life and work.

Tutored as a child, Karen chafed at the Victorian strictures imposed by her mother's family, and amused herself by writing stories. She attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, studying painting, a pursuit that she felt shaped the way she viewed the world. She became engaged to her Swedish cousin, Baron Bror Blixen-Finecke. The couple chose a new life in colonial Africa, purchasing a coffee plantation with their families' money, and they married in Africa in 1914. Baroness Blixen's life in Africa lasted about 17 years.

The marriage was a disaster. Bror, a dedicated womanizer, infected Karen with syphilis. He also failed in managing the farm, even before the marriage ended in divorce in 1925. Along the way, Karen met and fell in love with an aristocratic English safari guide and aviator, Denys Finch-Hatton. Their passionate, sometimes stormy, relationship ended tragically when he was killed in a plane crash in 1931. At the time of his death, drought, poor harvests, fire, the worldwide depression, and creditors had drained Blixen's resources. With no alternative, she sold the farm that year and left her much-loved Africa. She was 46 years old.

Back at the family home in Denmark, Blixen began a writing career, successfully debuting as an author with Seven Gothic Tales. This collection of short stories blends supernatural Gothic themes with modern psychological insights. The book was published in 1934 under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen. Isak, Danish for Isaac, means "laughter" in Hebrew. In Genesis (the first book of the Old Testament), it is the name given by Sarah, the aging wife of Abraham, to their unexpected child. For Dinesen, the male pen name obscured her gender.

Dinesen's second book, Out of Africa, was published in 1937. While reporting the sad conclusion to her African sojourn, this book of memories became a way to preserve in loving view her lost paradise and its diverse people for herself and for her expanding audience. In a world rapidly industrializing and lurching toward war, readers welcomed this lyric account of high adventure, raw courage, and survivable heartbreak. Given how little European and American readers knew of Africa, her stunning descriptions of landscape and weather, her depictions of domestic native life in all its variations, her unabashedly personal and authentic voice, and her humanistic view, firmly established Dinesen's literary reputation.

Dinesen continued writing during the 1940s and 1950s. She was twice nominated for a Nobel Prize and was widely respected by her contemporaries. Two Oscar-winning films were made from her work: Out of Africa in 1985 and Babette's Feast in 1987. Though she never returned to Kenya, according to biographer Linda Donelson, "It is said that every evening before going to bed, she opened the south door of her house and looked toward Africa." On September 7, 1962, Blixen died at her family's estate. The cause of death was malnutrition. Her inability to eat was possibly caused by mercury or arsenic poisoning, part of the anti-syphilis regime she adopted following her diagnosis. Her identification with her father, sadly, was complete.

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