Dinesen, Isak (1885–1962)
Dinesen, Isak (1885–1962)
Danish writer, author of tales from Africa, who was a major literary figure of the 20th century. Name variations: Karen Blixen; Karen Blixen-Finecke; (pseudonyms) Pierre Andrézel, Tania B., and Osceola. Born Karen Christentze Dinesen on April 17, 1885, in Rungsted, Denmark; died on September 7, 1962, in Rungsted; daughter of Wilhelm (an army officer and writer under his own name and his Indian name Boganis) and Ingeborg (Westenholz) Dinesen; studied English at Oxford University, 1904; studied painting at Royal Academy in Copenhagen, in Paris, 1910, and in Rome; married Baron Bror Blixen-Finecke (a big-game hunter and writer), January 14, 1914 (divorced 1921).
Ingenio et Arti Medal from King Frederick IX of Denmark (1950); The Golden Laurels (1952); Hans Christian Andersen Prize (1955); Danish Critics' Prize (1957); Henri Nathansen Memorial Fund award (1957).
Writer (1907–62); with husband Baron Blixen, managed a coffee plantation in British East Africa (now Nairobi, Kenya, 1913–21); took over management until failing coffee prices forced her to give up the farm in 1931; commissioned by three Scandinavian newspapers to write a series of 12 articles on wartime Berlin, Paris, and London (1940); became one of the founding members of the Danish Academy (November 28, 1960).
Selected writings (published in Danish under name Karen Blixen, except as noted, and in English under Isak Dinesen):
Sandhedens Haevn ("The Revenge of Truth," play first produced at Royal Theatre, Copenhagen, 1936); Seven Gothic Tales (Smith & Haas, 1934, Danish version published as Syv Fantastiske Fortaellinger); Out of Africa (London: Putnam, 1937, Danish version published as Den Afrikanske Farm); Winter's Tales (Random House, 1942, Danish version published as Vinter-Eventyr); (under pseudonym Pierre Andrezel) Gengaeldelsens Veje ("The Ways of Retribution," translation published as The Angelic Avengers, Putnam, 1946); Om revtskrivning 23–24 marts 1938 (Gyldendal, 1949); Daguerreotypier (two radio talks presented January, 1951, Gyldendal, 1951); Babettes Gaestebud ("Babette's Feast," Copenhagen: Fremad, 1952); Omkring den Nye Lov om Dyreforsoeg (Copenhagen: Politikens Forlag, 1952); Kardinalens tredie Historie ("The Cardinal's Third Tale," Gyldendal, 1952); En Baaltale med 14 Aars Forsinkelse ("Bonfire Speech 14 Years Delayed," Copenhagen: Berlingske Forlag, 1953); Spoegelseshestene (Fremad, 1955); Last Tales (Random House, 1957, Danish version published as Sidste Fortaellinger, Gyldendal, 1957); Anecdotes of Destiny (Random House, 1958, Danish version published as Skaebne-Anekdoter, Gyldendal, 1958); Skygger paa Graesset (Gyldendal, 1960, published as Shadows on the Grass, Random House, 1961); (introduction) Olive Schreiner's The Story of An African Farm (Limited Editions Club, 1961); On Mottoes of My Life (Copenhagen: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1962); Osceola (posthumously published collection of early stories and poems, Gyldendal, 1962); Ehrengard (posthumously published, Random House and Gyldendal, 1963); Karen Blixen (memorial edition of principal works, Gyldendal, 1964); Efterladte Fort-allinger (Gyldendal, 1975). Contributor of short stories, articles, and reviews to Ladies' Home Journal, Saturday Evening Post, Atlantic, Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, Botteghe Oscure, and Heretica.
Karen Blixen, better known by her pen name Isak Dinesen, remains one of Denmark's most widely acclaimed modern authors. A prose stylist who wrote skillfully in English as well as in her native Danish, Dinesen composed exotic and archaic tales that set her apart from the literary traditions of her day. Although initially snubbed by critics in her native country, she enjoyed both critical and commercial success in Britain and the United States and was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize. In addition to her considerable literary contributions, Dinesen is perhaps equally well known for her remarkable life, documented in such autobiographical works as Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass. As David Lehman noted in Newsweek: "She likened herself to Scheherazade—and fully lived up to the name … [leading] a life as wildly improbable and flamboyantly romantic as her exotic and spellbinding tales."
I believe that life demands of us that we love it, … in all its forms…. [W]hen you mention my philosophy of life, I have no other than that.
Born Christenze Dinesen on April 17, 1885, in Rungsted, Denmark, in a seaside house once inhabited by Johannes Ewald (1743–1781), Dinesen was widely considered Denmark's greatest lyric poet. She led a happy childhood until tragedy shattered her comfortable existence. In 1895, her father Wilhelm hung himself. Dinesen had always been very close to her father, and his suicide was a shock. "I was ten years old when father died. His death was for me a great sorrow, of a kind which probably only children feel," she wrote in Daguerreotypes and Other Essays. According to Parmenia Migel in Titania: The Biography of Isak Dinesen, Dinesen later reflected: "It was as if a part of oneself had also died … the desolate feeling that there was no one to remember the talks on Ewald's Hill … suddenly one was pushed into the foremost row of life, bereft of the joy and irresponsibility of childhood." Dinesen's brother Thomas, with whom she remained close as an adult, later speculated that their father had suffered from syphilis, a disease that Dinesen herself would contract years later.
Tutored at home by a series of governesses, Dinesen showed early artistic promise and as a teenager studied drawing, painting, and languages at a private school in France. In 1903, after a series of comprehensive exams, she was admitted into the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. There she developed her affinity for painting, an affinity that would later be reflected in the rich descriptive style of her writing. According to Judith Thurman in Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller, Dinesen later wrote: "[I owe painting] … for revealing the nature of reality to me. I have always had difficulty seeing how a landscape looked, if I had not first got the key to it from a great painter. I have experienced and recognized a land's particular character where a painter has interpreted it to me. Constable, Gainsborough and Turner showed me England. When I travelled to Holland as a young girl, I understood all the landscape and the cities said because the old Dutch painters did me the kind service of interpreting it." Dinesen dropped out of the Academy several years later and soon thereafter took up writing. Between 1904 and 1908 she wrote the first draft of a puppet play entitled "The Revenge of Truth," as well as a series of tales she called "Likely Stories." Mario Krohn, an art historian Dinesen had met at the Academy, read her work and encouraged Dinesen to take her writing seriously. Krohn also arranged to have some of her stories read by Valdemar Vedel, editor of one of Denmark's most distinguished literary magazines, Tilskueren. According to Thurman, Vedel wrote to Krohn that one of Dinesen's tales, "The Hermits," was "so original … and so well made that I would like to take it for Tilskueren." The tale was published in 1907 under the pseudonym Osceola. Two years later Krohn himself became editor of Tilskueren and accepted Dinesen's story "The de Cats Family" in 1909.
During these years, Dinesen spent much of her time in the company of her upper-class relatives, and soon found herself deeply but unhappily involved with her second cousin, Hans Blixen-Finecke. The failed love affair had a great impact on Dinesen. According to Thurman, she later recalled: "More than anything else, a deep, unrequited love left its mark on my early youth." Extremely depressed, Dinesen left Denmark in 1910 to attend a new art school in Paris. Thurman relates that when Mario Krohn visited Dinesen in Paris and asked her about her literary ambitions she answered that she wanted "all things in life more than to be a writer—travel, dancing, living, the freedom to paint." When she returned to her family estate at Rungstedlund several months later, Dinesen turned to writing as a diversion, revising "The Revenge of Truth" and composing early versions of tales such as "Carnival" and "Peter and Rosa."
A voyage to Rome two years later did little to assuage her depression over her unrequited love, and upon her return Dinesen shocked her family and friends by announcing that she was to marry Hans' twin brother, Bror Blixen. Based on advice from relatives, the engaged couple decided to go to Africa, then thought to be a land of opportunity and excitement for young people with initiative. In 1913, Bror Blixen left for British East Africa and, with capital provided largely by Dinesen's family, purchased a 6,000-acre coffee plantation outside of Nairobi, Kenya. The following January, Dinesen joined Baron Bror Blixen; the two were married on the 14th of that month. Dinesen would not return to writing fiction for many years, but 1914 marks the beginning of her letters to her family and friends, correspondence later compiled and published as Letters from Africa.
The early months in Africa passed well. Dinesen enjoyed living on the plantation and accompanying her husband on safari. She was also taken with her African servants, particularly her cook, Farah, who went on to become Dinesen's friend and confidant. During her time in Africa,
she socialized with the upper-class Europeans living there, many of whom would become models for characters in her tales. However, several months after her arrival in Kenya, Dinesen began to suffer from what she believed to be malaria but which later turned out to be a case of syphilis contracted from her husband. To receive treatment, she returned to Europe. Although the primary syphilis was arrested, Dinesen was to suffer the lingering effects of the disease throughout her life.
The next years were difficult ones for Dinesen, both personally and financially. The philandering Baron embarked on extended safaris, ignoring his duties to both the farm and his wife. Meanwhile, despite her family's continued financial support, the coffee farm was losing large amounts of money. Forced to return to Denmark for treatment of blood poisoning, Dinesen confided her marital problems to her mother and brother Thomas. These problems, combined with the ongoing financial setbacks on the farm, caused Bror's dismissal and Dinesen's appointment as the sole manager of what became known as the Karen Coffee Company. Although her family urged divorce, Dinesen agreed only to a separation from the Baron. "I would never demand a divorce or try to push it through against Bror's will. I do not know how anyone can do that unless one is quite frenzied; and even though I have occasionally been angry with Bror or, rather, perhaps, in despair over his behavior, there is far, far too much binding us together from all the years of difficulty we have shared here, for me to be able to take the initiative in putting an end to what, if nothing else, was a most intimate relationship. … In any case, it is my heartfelt hope that he will be happy. … I feel for Bror, and will until I die, the greatest friendship or the deepest tenderness that I am capable of feeling," Dinesen explained in Letters from Africa. In the end, however, it was the Baron who requested and received the divorce.
About this time Dinesen met Denys Finch Hatton, a handsome English pilot and hunter who was to become her companion and lover as well as the first audience for her tales. During Finch Hatton's occasional, and often unannounced, visits, Dinesen would relate to her friend stories she had thought up during his absence, weaving imaginative tales to lengthen Finch Hatton's visits.
In 1923, inspired by a debate between her mother and brother concerning sexual morality, Dinesen wrote a long essay entitled "On Modern Marriage and Other Considerations," her first formal writing effort in years. The following year, she resubmitted "The Revenge of Truth" to Tilskueren. When it was accepted for publication a year later, Dinesen wrote in Letters from Africa: "With regard to 'The Revenge of Truth.' I don't want anything in it changed; but I imagine there is little chance of it ever being published. I don't think there is anything blasphemous in it, simply that it is written from an atheist's viewpoint. I believe it would be impossible to write if one gave consideration to who is going to read one's work,—but for that matter I don't think I will be writing anything in the near future."
During the mid-and late 1920s, the Karen Coffee Company suffered enormous financial setbacks, and it soon became clear that Dinesen would be forced to sell the farm. To alleviate her anxiety, she started writing down those fantastic tales she had recounted to Hatton during his stays. She later recalled in Daguerreotypes and Other Essays: "During my last months in Africa, as it became clear to me that I could not keep the farm, I had started writing at night, to get my mind off the things which in the daytime it had gone over a hundred times, and on a new track. My squatters on the farm, by then, had got into the habit of coming up to my house and sitting around it for hours in silence, as if just waiting to see how things would develop. I felt their presence there more like a friendly gesture than a reproach, but all the same of sufficient weight to make it difficult for me to start any undertaking of my own. But they would go away, back to their huts, at nightfall. And I sat there, in the house, alone, or perhaps with Farah, the infallibly loyal, standing motionless in his long white Arab robe with his back to the wall, figures, voices, and colors from far away or from nowhere began to swarm around my paraffin lamp." In such a manner, Dinesen wrote two of her Seven Gothic Tales. By 1931, the farm had been auctioned off. While awaiting her return to Denmark, Dinesen learned that Finch Hatton had been killed when his small plane crashed in Tanganyika. She looked on Africa for the last time in May of 1931.
Once home at Rungstedlund, Dinesen began to write almost immediately, working in her father's old office. Now, however, her motives were serious. "My home is a lovely place; I might have lived on there from day to day in a kind of sweet idyll; but I could not see any kind of future before me. And I had no money; my dowry, so to say, had gone with the farm. I owed it to the people on whom I was dependent to try to make some kind of existence for myself. Those Gothic Tales began to demand to be written," she later wrote in Daguerreotypes and Other Essays. Two years later, at age 48, Dinesen completed her first collection of stories, Seven Gothic Tales.
Although Seven Gothic Tales was written in English, Dinesen experienced some difficulty getting the book into print; few publishers were willing to bet on a debut work by an unknown Danish author. Several British publishers rejected the manuscript before it came across the desk of Dorothy Canfield Fisher , a friend of Thomas Dinesen and member of the Book-of-the-Month Club selection committee. Impressed with the collection, Fisher sent it to publisher Robert Haas, who was equally impressed and released Seven Gothic Tales the following year.
An aura of mystery surrounded the book's publication. When it offered Seven Gothic Tales as its April 1934 selection, the Book-of-the-Month Club newsletter stated simply, "No clue is available as to the pseudonymic author." Dinesen herself confused matters by preceding her maiden name with a man's first name—Isak, Hebrew for "one who laughs." Her true identity was not revealed until over 50,000 copies of Seven Gothic Tales were in print. With this collection Dinesen began a long and rewarding relationship with American readers, as five of her books would become Book-of-the-Month Club selections.
In Seven Gothic Tales, Dinesen introduced stylistic and thematic motifs that are to be found throughout much of her subsequent work. She derived these motifs largely from two 19th-century literary movements—the Gothic and the decadent. As in the novels written in these genres, Dinesen's tales are often characterized by an emphasis on the emotional and spiritual, a nostalgia for the glory of past ages, a predilection for exotic characters, and an overriding sense of mystery, horror, and the supernatural. Eric O. Johannesson noted in The World of Isak Dinesen that "The spinechilling tale of terror, with its persecuted women, its ghosts, and its mysterious convents and castles, as well as the cruel tale, with its atmosphere of perversity and artificiality, have served as sources of inspiration for Dinesen." While critics clearly recognized Dinesen's debt to these traditions, several felt that she went beyond them. Langbaum maintained in Isak Dinesen's Art: The Gayety of Vision that Dinesen is "an important writer because she has understood the tradition behind her and has taken the next step required by that tradition. Like the other, more massive writers of her generation—Rilke, Kafka, Mann, Joyce, Eliot, Yeats, …—she takes off from the sense of individuality developed in the course of the nineteenth-century to the point of morbidity, and leads that individuality where it wants to go. She leads it back to a universal principle and a connection with the external world."
Seven Gothic Tales also introduces Dinesen's preoccupation with the principle of interdependence, which she further develops in later works. In Seven Gothic Tales there are interrelationships among individual stories in the volume as well as the existence of stories within stories. Comparing such constructions to "a complex kaleidoscope," Elizabeth Ely Fuller wrote in the New Boston Review that "Each character and each event works as a little bit of mirror reflecting another character or event, and then turning slightly to catch some other reflection. To reinforce this overall plot structure, Dinesen uses mirror images and similes repeatedly as the characters muse on their own nature and on their relation to others. To any one of them, the story makes no sense, but taken as a whole, the stories, like a piece of music or a minuet, form a complete pattern of movement." The principle of interdependence works on a thematic level in Seven Gothic Tales as well, as such disparate concepts such as good and evil, comedy and tragedy, and art and life, are intricately linked.
In spite of poor health and repeated hospitalizations, Dinesen continued to work on a book of memoirs entitled Out of Africa. Considered by many to be the greatest pastoral romance of the 20th century, Out of Africa enjoyed immediate and lasting critical acclaim, particularly from British and American critics. In a Chicago Tribune review, Richard Stern called the work "perhaps the finest book ever written about Africa," claiming that "it casts over landscape, animals, and people the kind of transfixing spell 'Ulysses' casts over Dublin." Katherine Woods, writing in The New York Times, praised the book's absence of "sentimentality" and "elaboration" and avers, "Like the Ngong hills—'which are amongst the most beautiful in the world'—this writing is without redundancies, bared to its lines of strength and beauty." Even those critics who found fault with the book's structure commended Dinesen's style. "The tale of increasing tragedy which fills the latter half of the book seems not quite so successful as her earlier chapters," noted Hassoldt Davis in the Saturday Review of Literature. "But," he added, "her book has a solid core of beauty in it, and a style as cadenced, constrained, and graceful as we have today." Hudson Strode seemed to capture the sentiments of many critics when he wrote in Books: "The author casts enchantment over her landscape with the most casual phrases. … Backward, forward, she goes, a spark here, a flare there, until she has the landscape fairly lit up before you with all its inhabitants and customs in place. The result is a great naturalness."
Letters from Africa, the posthumously published compilation of Dinesen's correspondence with her family and friends, sheds a good deal of light on Out of Africa. Begun soon after her arrival to Africa in 1914, these letters provide the private, often painful story behind the romantic vision of life presented in her famous memoir. As these letters show, Dinesen endured a number of hardships during her 17 years in Africa. Lingering bouts of illness, marital problems, increasing loneliness, and financial worries all caused her despair. But, despite their painful revelations, these letters shed light on intermittent periods of happiness, even elation. This is particularly evident in Dinesen's descriptions of her growing attachment to the land of Africa and its people. "Immediately after lunch, Bror and I drove by car to our own farm. It is the most enchanting road you can imagine, like our own Deer Park, and the long blue range of Ngong Hills stretching out beyond it. There are so many flowering trees and shrubs, and a scent rather like bog myrtle, or pine trees, pervades everything. Out here it is not hot at all, the air is so soft and lovely, and one feels so light and free and happy," Dinesen wrote in one of her early entries in Letters from Africa.
Letters from Africa follows Dinesen's development from naive bride to able plantation manager to financially ruined-but-unembittered divorcée. Remarked Kathleen Chase in World Literature Today: "We see Dinesen unmasked in all her moods and emotions, prejudices and predilections, her thoughts, her periodic nostalgia for Denmark (always flying the Danish flag) and her idyllic relationship with the English safari leader Denys Finch Hatton." Indeed, many of these letters chart Dinesen's increasing romantic feelings for Finch Hatton. As she wrote to her brother Thomas in 1928, "That such a person as Denys does exist,—something I have indeed guessed at before, but hardly dared to believe,—and that I have been lucky enough to meet him in this life and been so close to him,—even though there have been long periods of missing him in between,—compensates for everything else in the world, and other things cease to have any significance." Though Dinesen later experienced difficulty in her relationship with Finch Hatton, most of her letters recall their friendship glowingly.
These letters also revealed a good deal about Dinesen's patrician outlook. By her own admission, she felt an affinity for the aristocracy and a general disdain for all that was bourgeois. In fact, she often called herself "God's little snob." The correspondence in Letters from Africa does little to change such a reputation. Isak Dinesen "was a terrible snob. Critics have long waxed ingenious in defending her short stories from charges of noblesse oblige; those defenses will be harder to make on the evidence of this collection," claimed Carl Bailey in the Village Voice. A New York Times Book Review contributor admitted that Letters from Africa often put Dinesen in a poor light. "Her letters reveal a difficult woman: inconsistent and often cruel in her rejection of family life, emotionally demanding and given to what she herself called 'showing off.'" However, most critics have maintained that the overall portrait of Dinesen that emerges from these letters is a positive one. Wrote Victoria Glendinning in the Washington Post Book World: "It is her will and complete lack of self-pity that make [Dinesen] so sympathetic and save her from the alienating intensity of other solitary searchers such as, for example, Simone Weil. She quotes a definition of true piety as 'loving one's destiny unconditionally.' To be able to do this without losing her resilience was part of [her] achievement." Adds Richard Stern in the Chicago Tribune, "If these [letters] are not as brilliant as those in her great memoir, there is at least the material for one portrait greater than all the others, that of the great human being behind them all."
In 1940, Dinesen was commissioned by the Copenhagen daily newspaper Politiken to spend a month in Berlin, a month in Paris, and a month in London and to write a series of articles about each city. Although the advent of World War II caused the cancellations of the Paris and London visits, Dinesen's recollections of Hitler's Germany were later compiled in the posthumous collection Daguerreotypes and Other Essays. About this time, Dinesen also began work on her second set of stories, but completion of the volume was delayed by complications arising from tertiary syphilis. Dinesen eventually finished this second set of tales and, in 1942, Winter's Tales, a book that derives its title from one of Shake-speare's plays, was published in the United States, England, and Denmark.
With Winter's Tales Dinesen broke from the relative realism of Out of Africa and returned to the highly imaginative style that characterizes Seven Gothic Tales. Although these two collections share a number of similarities, Winter's Tales is simpler in style and closer in setting to modern Denmark. "Suffused with vague aspirations toward some cloudy ideal," noted Clifton Fadiman in The New Yorker, "with a longing for the impossible, with a brooding delight in magnificent and absurd gestures, with a quality of sleepwalking, they are as far removed from 1943 as anything can well be." Some critics, however, found fault with Dinesen's unique writing style. In a Commonweal review J.E. Tobin claimed, "The characters lack even the vague shape of ghosts; the atmosphere is that of stale perfume; the writing, called quaint by some, is downright awkward." Nonetheless, the general consensus was one of commendation for both the form and content of Winter's Tales. Struthers Brut, writing in the Saturday Review of Literature, summed up such a reaction when he maintained: "Often as you read the tales you wonder why you are so interested, so constantly excited, for the tales themselves, all of them symbolic, are not especially exciting in their plots, and the characters are frequently as remote as those in fairy tales, and a great deal of the time you are wandering in a fourth dimension where nothing is clear. But the final effect is unforgettable, just as the moments of reading are unforgettable."
Winter's Tales, along with Seven Gothic Tales and Out of Africa, are generally considered to be Dinesen's masterpieces. Between their publication and the 1957 publication of Last Tales, there was a 15-year hiatus during which she published only one book—The Angelic Avengers, a thriller novel released in 1946 under the pseudonym of Pierre Andrezel. Dinesen was never proud of The Angelic Avengers and for many years refused to acknowledge herself as the book's author. Even after such acknowledgment, Dinesen criticized the book, claiming that she wrote it solely for her own amusement as a diversion from the grim realities of Nazi-occupied Denmark. In spite of her disclaimers, the book, a bestseller in Denmark and a Book-of-the-Month
Club selection in America, was generally well-received.
The primary reason for Dinesen's sparse production between 1942 and 1957 was her continual poor health. Despite a series of corrective operations, she suffered lingering bouts of illness that greatly hampered her creative output, and she spent much of the 1940s convalescing and occasionally traveling. By 1950, her health had improved, and she delivered a series of broadcasts for Danish radio in which she described her African servant and friend, Farah. These broadcasts foreshadowed some of the material that would later be included in Shadows on the Grass. Dinesen's 70th birthday, in 1955, was feted worldwide. In August of that same year, she underwent an operation in which several spinal nerves were severed, as well as surgery on an ulcer. After the surgery, she became an invalid, never again ate normally, and never weighed more than 85 pounds. According to Thurman, Dinesen wrote at the time: "[These] past eight months have been more horrible than I can really describe to others—such continuous, insufferable pains, under which I howled like a wolf, are something one cannot fully comprehend. I feel that I have been in an Underworld. … The problem for me now is how I shall manage to come back into the world of human beings. It sometimes feels practically insoluble, though I believe that if I find something to look forward to, it could be possible."
In spite of her poor health and advanced age, Dinesen experienced a great renaissance during the late 1950s and early 1960s. During this period she published three works within a four-year span—Last Tales in 1957, Anecdotes of Destiny in 1958, and Shadows on the Grass in 1961. By now Dinesen was hailed worldwide as a major literary figure and had been nominated for the Nobel Prize several times. When Ernest Hemingway accepted his Nobel Prize in 1954 he said that the award should have been given instead to "that beautiful Danish writer Isak Dinesen."
As in her earlier volumes, the stories in Last Tales vary in time and place but deal with similar character types and themes, primarily exotic, often aristocratic characters in conflict or in harmony with their destinies. Destiny, more specifically one's control over it, is one of Dinesen's major themes. In her view, such a coming to terms involves an acceptance of one's fate as determined by God. "Dinesen's tales, like the stories in the Arabian Nights, proclaim the belief in the all but magic power of the story to provide man with a new vision and a renewed faith in life," Johannesson wrote. "Her figures are often Hamlet figures, melancholy men and women who wait for fate to lend them a helping hand, who wait for the storyteller to provide them with a destiny by placing them in a story." Although Last Tales was her first set of stories in over 15 years, many critics found that Dinesen had managed to retain her artistic mastery. As a Time reviewer noted of Last Tales: "The characters are large, heroic figures and they are brought to earth with a resounding crash. Such men and women are rare in contemporary fiction; the art to make them live vitally—as Author Dinesen does—is rarer still."
A year after the release of Last Tales, Anecdotes of Destiny was published in both the United States and Denmark. A collection of five tales, Anecdotes of Destiny, with its preference for exotic locales and predominantly 19th-century settings, resembles her early work. The overall critical reaction to Anecdotes of Destiny was somewhat mixed. In his Manchester Guardian review of the book, W.L. Webb described it as "a collection of elaborate fairy tales for elderly epicures, very cold, cultured, and romantic, with a faint Yellow Book flavour, and belonging to no world outside of the writer's imagination." But he adds, "One can often admire their jewelled-movement ingenuity without conceding the claims of the faithful to a Larger Significance." Some critics felt that Anecdotes of Destiny did not quite measure up to Dinesen's other writing. "If these stories are not quite so weird as the author's earlier ones, they are also not quite so effective. … And occasionally they seem to sprawl somewhat carelessly," remarked Howard Blair in the San Francisco Chronicle. On the other hand, critic R.H. Glauber felt that the stories in Anecdotes of Destiny were consistent with Dinesen's previous work. "If they lack something of the complex plotting we had in earlier stories, they have a new feature that more than makes up for it—a sense of fate that hangs over the characters and toward which they rush with dignified haste," Glauber wrote in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review. "Babette's Feast," a short story that was later filmed as a motion picture, was ranked "with the best Dinesen has ever written."
Although now in her mid-70s and predominantly bedridden, Dinesen remained active following the publication of Anecdotes of Destiny. In 1961, Shadows on the Grass, a collection of four short essays, was released. The last of Dinesen's books published during her lifetime, it was written during a time of great suffering and was often dictated from a hospital bed a few paragraphs at a time. Like Out of Africa before it, Shadows on the Grass takes as its subject matter Dinesen's years in Africa. While it includes reminiscences about the excitement of hunting lions and the hazards of raising coffee on the equator, the book's main focus is Dinesen's recollections of her African servants. The last of Dinesen's Book-of-the-Month Club selections, Shadows on the Grass met with almost universal acclaim. "The four stories in 'Shadows on the Grass' are triumphantly sentimental and gently anecdotal; yet within their miniature frame they have many of the qualities of the finest story-telling," wrote William Dunlea in Commonweal. Critics particularly lauded Dinesen's manner in evoking memories from her past; Phoebe Adams, writing in the Atlantic, praised Dinesen's acuteness of perception and "ability to find an undercurrent of wonder in any situation." A Time reviewer concurred, claiming: "What the baroness does in this book is scarcely tangible enough to describe. She dips a branch of memory into the pool of the past until it is crystallized with insights, landscapes, literature, and animals that seem as if painted by Henri Rousseau."
Dinesen died in September of 1962, less than a year after the publication of Shadows on the Grass. Her legacy has been kept alive by a series of posthumously published works including Carnival: Entertainments and Posthumous Tales and by a major motion picture. The 1985 film Out of Africa, starring Klaus Maria Brandauer as Baron Blixen, Robert Redford as Finch Hatton and Meryl Streep as Dinesen, won a total of seven Oscars, including best picture. The film was instrumental in causing renewed interest in both Dinesen and her work; two years after its release, Vintage Books had sold over 653,000 copies of Out of Africa, thus making Dinesen a bestselling author almost 25 years after her death.
One of Dinesen's chief projects near the end of her life was the preservation of Rungstedlund, a 16th-century Danish inn that had been purchased by her father and in which she had been born six years later. While she would leave Rungstedlund for Africa soon after the tragic death of her father, Dinesen returned and wrote her five collections of short stories here. She established the Rungsted Foundation, a private institution that purchased the house and surrounding land and was entrusted with preserving the area as a bird reserve after her death. In July of 1958, Dinesen gave a radio talk on the future of Rungstedlund, asking listeners to donate one Danish crown to the Foundation; over 80,000 listeners complied with her request. After her death, in keeping with her wishes, Rungstedlund was preserved as a museum and bird sanctuary, which houses numerous family artifacts, and a library of over 2,000 of the author's books. Dinesen herself is buried in the sanctuary, beneath a beech tree where nightingales on their way to Africa stop to roost. The coffee plantation that lies southernmost in their path, in the Ngong Hills of Kenya, has also been turned into a museum site.
Dinesen considered herself more of a storyteller than a writer. According to Donald Hannah's "Isak Dinesen" and Karen Blixen: The Mask and the Reality, Dinesen once wrote: "I belong to an 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 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." While she did, indeed, lead a remarkable life, it is for the translation of that life to the stuff of fiction that she will be best remembered. "Of a story she made an essence; of the essence she made an elixir," wrote Eudora Welty in The New York Times, "and of the elixir she began once more to compound the story."
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——. Skygger paa Graesset, Gyldendal, 1960, published as Shadows on the Grass. NY: Random House, 1961.
Dinesen, Thomas. My Sister, Isak Dinesen. Translated from the Danish by Joan Tate. London: M. Joseph, 1975.
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——, ed. Isak Dinesen: Critical Views. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1993.
Stambaugh, Sara. The Witch and the Goddess in the Stories of Isak Dinesen: A Feminist Reading. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1988.
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The Immortal Story (film), adapted by Orson Welles, Altura, 1968.
Babette's Feast (film), starring Stéphane Audran , 1987.
Lucifer's Child (play), written by William Luce, starring Julie Harris as Dinesen, opened in New York, April 1991.