Authors: Isak Dinesen

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Danish short-story writer and memoirist

Author Works

Short Fiction:

Seven Gothic Tales, 1934

Vinter-Eventyr, 1942 (Winter’s Tales, 1942)

Sidste Fortoellinger, 1957 (Last Tales, 1957)

Skoebne-Anekdoter, 1958 (Anecdotes of Destiny, 1958)

Ehrengard, 1963

Efterladte Fortoellinger, 1975 (Carnival: Entertainments and Posthumous Tales, 1977)

Long Fiction:

Gengoeldelsens Veje, 1944 (as Pierre Andrézel; The Angelic Avengers, 1946)


Den afrikanske Farm, 1937 (Out of Africa, 1937)

Skygger paa Groesset, 1960 (Shadows on the Grass, 1960)

Essays, 1965

Breve fra Afrika 1914-1931, 1978 (Letters from Africa 1914-1931, 1981)

Daguerreotypes, and Other Essays, 1979

Samlede Essays, 1985


Isak Dinesen (DEE-nuh-suhn), born Karen Christenze Dinesen, is Denmark’s most prominent twentieth century author and one of the most distinctive voices in modern Western literature. She was born in a suburb of Copenhagen in 1885, the daughter of Wilhelm Dinesen, an army officer, landowner, wanderer, and storyteller, and Ingeborg Westenholz, a matriarch in the staunchest Victorian tradition. It was from her father that Dinesen inherited the restlessness that motivated her to escape to Africa and the imagination to turn her experiences into myths of great power and feeling.{$I[AN]9810001265}{$I[A]Dinesen, Isak}{$S[A]Blixen-Finecke, Baroness Karen[Blixen Finecke, Baroness Karen];Dinesen, Isak}{$S[A]Andrézel, Pierre;Dinesen, Isak}{$S[A]Osceola;Dinesen, Isak}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Dinesen, Isak}{$I[geo]DENMARK;Dinesen, Isak}{$I[geo]KENYA;Dinesen, Isak}{$I[tim]1885;Dinesen, Isak}

Isak Dinesen

(Library of Congress)

Dinesen’s life falls naturally into three strikingly different periods. The years from 1885 to 1914 saw an imaginative and high-spirited young woman struggling against the constraints of the Westenholz bourgeois mentality, a struggle that ended with her departure for Kenya to marry her Swedish cousin Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke and to manage a coffee plantation. From 1914 to 1931, Dinesen lived in Africa, where, at least in the early days, she enjoyed the best of all worlds: the Westenholz money to underwrite the operation of the plantation, almost complete autonomy over the plantation, and the title of baroness to please her vanity and reinforce her faith in her destiny as the last true aristocrat in an age of dull democracy. During this period, she also enjoyed an intense friendship with Denys Finch-Hatton, the scholarly hunter and aviator who played the roles of lover, mentor, and muse. Although she gained a reputation among friends and servants as a gifted storyteller, writing as a profession was the farthest thing from her mind at this time. She was far too busy hunting game, acting as paramedic to the natives, and entertaining visitors from all walks of life. Meanwhile, she was trying to turn a profit on the farm, which was losing money because of drought and a depressed coffee market. In the end, she lost everything: her farm, her friends, her freedom, even her health.

From 1931 to 1962, Karen Blixen became Isak Dinesen, the pen name she coined by combining her maiden name with the Hebrew word meaning “he who laughs,” for Dinesen’s vision is surprisingly positive. When the world she had planned for herself collapsed, she surrendered to a higher will, “a higher imagination,” as she put it, and it was in this act of submission that she found her unique literary voice and the themes that run through all of her works: the interdependence of opposites and the joyful acceptance of destiny. Bereft of everything but a determination to survive, she accepted the temporary charity of her family while she spent the two years following her return to Denmark writing Seven Gothic Tales. It was a project which, in the early 1930’s, had all the portents of failure about it. For one thing, she had the audacity, in an age of social realism, to write sophisticated fairy tales about eccentric characters living in a bygone age. She also chose to write in English, which meant that she would have to compete in a foreign literary market weakened by the Great Depression and dominated by a strain of social realism as virulent as the one that was dominating Danish letters in the 1930’s.

In spite of these odds, Dinesen was warmly received by both Random House and the Book-of-the-Month Club. Encouraged by this success, she next wrote the book that would become her most popular work, Out of Africa, a haunting autobiographical reminiscence that critic Robert Langbaum has called “perhaps the best prose pastoral of our time.” Others have called it Dinesen’s “eighth gothic tale” because her account of the life she led in Africa has nothing in it of the drudgery, heartbreak, anxiety, and frustration she experienced.

Although in Denmark her reception was slow in coming and is still tainted with skepticism, in the United States her reputation has never flagged. Each succeeding volume of tales or memoirs found a ready and enthusiastic audience. During the German occupation of Denmark, Dinesen wrote Winter’s Tales and The Angelic Avengers. Winter’s Tales was smuggled out of Denmark in 1942 and became enormously popular in the United States, but Dinesen knew nothing of its reception until after Denmark was liberated in 1945. The Angelic Avengers is a gothic novel that she refused to acknowledge for years; some critics see it as an allegory of the German occupation.

After World War II, Dinesen did not publish much, and many believe that most of what she did publish does not measure up to the high standards she set for herself in Seven Gothic Tales. It is possible, however, to detect that extraordinary Dinesen touch in Anecdotes of Destiny and Last Tales, volumes which contain such superlative stories as “Babette’s Feast,” “The Immortal Story,” and “The Blank Page.” Shortly before she died, Dinesen published Shadows on the Grass, a sequel to Out of Africa, in which she included reminiscences omitted from the earlier book and brought readers up to date on what had happened to some of her servants during the thirty-odd years since she left Africa. For one reason or another, she was never able to pay a return visit. Ehrengard, a novella, was published in 1963, the year after her death, and since then there have been several publications of both stories and essays that either had never been published before or had appeared only in Danish. Except for books by Eric Johannesson and Robert Langbaum, there was little Dinesen scholarship until the mid-1970’s. This scholarship has done much to establish Isak Dinesen as a major force in modern world literature.

BibliographyAiken, Susan Hardy. Isak Dinesen and the Engendering of Narrative. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. Offers thoughtful critical interpretation of Dinesen’s works. Includes bibliographical references and an index.Bassoff, Bruce. “Babette Can Cook: Life and Art in Three Stories by Isak Dinesen.” Studies in Short Fiction 27 (Summer, 1990): 385-389. Discusses the plot elements of desire for transcendence, a fall caused by confrontation with the real world, and new knowledge or resignation in “The Ring,” “The Diver,” and “Babette’s Feast.”Bjørnvig, Thorkild. The Pact: My Friendship with Isak Dinesen. Translated from the Danish by Ingvar Schousboe and William Jay Smith. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983. This short book offers Bjørnvig’s account of his friendship with Dinesen, from their first meeting in 1948 to their definitive parting in 1954. Written by an accomplished poet, the volume is interesting in its own right as well as for the insight into Dinesen which it provides.Donelson, Linda. Out of Isak Dinesen in Africa: The Untold Story. Iowa City, Iowa: Coulsong List, 1995. A good, updated biography of Dinesen. Includes bibliographical references and an index.Hannah, Donald. “Isak Dinesen” and Karen Blixen: The Mask and the Reality. London: Putnam and Company, 1971. The biographical sections are particularly valuable in charting the development also of Dinesen’s aesthetic, especially Dinesen’s emphasis on the nature of story, her masklike impersonality, and the nature of her characters. The second half of the book, devoted to Dinesen’s art, focuses on her process of writing and the general characteristics of her stories, and it analyzes several of the most important.Henriksen, Aage. “The Empty Space Between Art and Church.” In Out of Denmark, edited by Bodil Warmberg. Copenhagen: Danish Cultural Institute, 1985. Henriksen asserts that the underlying principle of all Dinesen’s tales is the discovery that reality is transformed into a dream. Contends that Dinesen’s stories are based on the complicated nature of human love.Horton, Susan R. Difficult Women, Artful Lives: Olive Schreiner and Isak Dinesen, in and out of Africa. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. Profiles these two woman writers. Includes bibliographical references and an index.Johannesson, Eric O. The World of Isak Dinesen. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1961. From the theoretical perspective of the New Criticism, Johannesson offers brief but close analyses of Dinesen’s tales, concluding that the art of story-telling is the author’s central theme and the basis for her worldview. The book serves as an excellent introduction to Dinesen’s work. Contains a good bibliography as well as an index.Juhl, Marianne, and Bo Hakon Jørgensen. Diana’s Revenge: Two Lines in Isak Dinesen’s Authorship. Translated from the Danish by Anne Born. Odense, Denmark: Odense University Press, 1985. This volume contains two sophisticated scholarly and critical essays of considerable length. Juhl’s contribution, “Sex and Consciousness,” is informed by feminist theory. Jørgensen, in “The Ways of Art,” discusses the relationship between Dinesen’s sensuality and her art. Their book, which includes a good bibliography, is particularly strong in its discussion of Dinesen’s use of classical symbols.Langbaum, Robert Woodrow. The Gayety of Vision: A Study of Isak Dinesen’s Art. New York: Random House, 1964. In an extensive study that will serve as a suitable introduction to Dinesen for the experienced reader, Langbaum places her within the Western literary tradition. A major claim is that, by dissolving the distinction between fact and value, Dinesen is able to achieve a unified vision of the beauty, sadness, and gaiety of life. Good bibliography, index.Migel, Parmenia. Titania: The Biography of Isak Dinesen. New York: Random House, 1967. The work of a writer rather than that of a scholar, Migel’s biography truly represents a labor of love. Migel, a friend of Dinesen, promised Dinesen that she would be her biographer once Dinesen had died. The resulting volume is aimed at an audience of Dinesen devotees but will be of interest to others as well. Bibliography, index.Mullins, Maire. “Home, Community, and the Gift That Gives in Isak Dinesen’s ‘Babette’s Feast.’” Women’s Studies 23 (1994): 217-228. Argues that the meal Babette prepares is not a gift but a demonstration of her own aesthetic powers. Argues that Babette subverts the phallo-logocentric society in which she finds herself and transforms home and community through her presence.Pelensky, Olga Anastasia, ed. Isak Dinesen: Critical Views. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1993. A collection of essays. See also Pelensky’s biographical Isak Dinesen: The Life and Imagination of a Seducer (1991).Rashkin, Esther. “A Recipe for Mourning: Isak Dinesen’s ‘Babette’s Feast.’” Style 29 (Fall, 1995): 356-374. Claims the story is a psychoanalytic reflection on the process involved in overcoming an inability to mourn, for which it writes a recipe for transcendence of that inability through the preparation and consumption of food.Stambaugh, Sara. The Witch and the Goddess in the Stories of Isak Dinesen: A Feminist Reading. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988. Stambaugh offers a feminist-inspired examination of the portraits of women which are found in Dinesen’s texts. The strength of her brief study is the recognition of the centrality of gender for an understanding of Dinesen’s work; its weakness is its lack of theoretical sophistication. The book has a complete scholarly apparatus.Thurman, Judith. Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982. Thurman’s biography constitutes the fullest treatment of Dinesen’s life and work in any language. Meticulously researched and highly readable, it provides an account of the writer’s life, brief analyses of her works, and extensive discussion of the relationship between her life and works. Addressed to both scholars and an educated nonspecialist audience, it contains scholarly notes, a select bibliography, and a useful index.Yacobi, Tamar. “Pictorial Models and Narrative Ekphrasis.” Poetics Today 16 (Winter, 1995): 599-649. Discusses interrelations between pictorial models and narrative ekphrasis in which the two join forces to bring a visual image into literary play. Illustrates interplays between the ekphrastic model and narrativity through the poetics of Dinesen.
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