The Danish author Karen Blixen (1885–1962) wrote Out of Africa originally in English, publishing this novelistic memoir in Denmark, Sweden, and England in 1937, and in the United States in 1938. This was her second book, following Seven Gothic Tales. Dinesen wrote in both Danish and English. Ironically, critical reception to Dinesen’s Out of Africa was mainly positive everywhere except in her native Denmark, where, with the attacks being mostly ad hominem, the critics accused Dinesen of snobbery and noblesse oblige. The latter criticism, however, was openly embraced by the author, who believed that her status of nobility (Baroness Karen Blixen-Finecke took the pen name Isak Dinesen) and of a plantation owner inferred obligation to assume responsibilities and behave nobly toward the native people living on what was now her land. Critics outside Denmark praised the book for its timeless serenity and a sensitive description of Africa and the Kenyan people.
Narrating Isak Dinesen’s experience in Africa, the book does more than just provide a romantic view of the “paradise lost,” commented on by several critics; it creates an understanding and respectful attitude toward the native people, challenging the then current colonial view of the natives as uncivilized savages. One of the episodes, included despite the British publisher’s attempt to dissuade Dinesen from spreading information damaging the prestige of the British colonizers, presented a story of an African boy beaten by an English settler and left chained to a stove to die. While the author never voices a direct condemnation of the colonial practices, she makes a political statement through her narrative choice.
Some critics have pointed out that the picture of Africa that Dinesen presents is too rosy: Apparently she omitted some well-known atrocities committed by British soldiers in Kenya. In Dinesen’s defense, others say that her work is not a historical chronicle. It is not even a chronological narrative. Rather, it is a distanced fragmentary recollection of events in the life of a woman struggling for personal freedom and independence. Noteworthy, the book, while talking in detail about Dinesen’s Kenyan servants, has only one reference to her husband; nor does the author focus on her romance with Denis Finch-Hatton. The book Dinesen intended to write was about Africa, not about her own life, and she remained true to her intention.
Dinesen believed that Africa belonged to the natives, not to the European colonizers, although as a landowner she was in fact a colonizer herself. In her role of a farm owner, she took care of the native people living on her land, assisting them with curing simple ailments and paying for hospital in cases of emergency. She also established an evening school on her farm to fight illiteracy among Kenyans and paid for one of her servants to go to a high school in Mombasa. Dinesen felt a strong sense of obligation to the native people living on her farm: When she went bankrupt and had to sell the farm, she pleaded with the government to find for the tribe enough land to resettle so that they could stay together. It was through winning the native people’s trust and affection rather than through a traditional marriage or relationship or financial success that Dinesen found in Kenya her place in life and achieved autonomy and independence.
Dinesen’s focus on overcoming hardships and achieving personal freedom, the fragmentation and irregularity of her narrative, and the author’s liberty with time and chronology placed Out of Africa in the focus of critical attention as a work of female biography. Despite the features that are typical of the genre, Out of Africa remains an enigma: In what many call Dinesen’s memoir, the author never mentions her childhood, her first love, her husband’s womanizing, her miscarriage, her infection with syphilis and the painful treatment she had to undergo, and the constant financial struggles on a nonprofitable farm. Instead, the book is filled with episodes of native life, the Kenyan people, their deep understanding of nature, wildlife, and hunting.
Sidney Pollack’s 1985 Hollywood version of Out of Africa, casting Meryl Streep, Robert Redford, and Klaus Maria Brandauer, won seven Oscars and revived interest in the novel. However, as a highly romanticized Hollywood love story of a Danish baroness who has a passionate but ultimately doomed love affair with a free-spirited big-game hunter, the movie betrayed the subtle complexity and refinement of the novel.
Brantly, Susan C. Understanding Isak Dinesen. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002.
Donelson, Linda G. Out of Isak Dinesen in Africa: Karen Blixen’s Untold Story. Iowa City: Coulsong, 1995.
Pelensky, Olga Anastasia, ed. Isak Dinesen: Critical Views. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1993.
Svendsen, Clara. The Life and Destiny of Isak Dinesen. Edited by Frans Lasson. New York: Random House, 1970.
Thurman, Judith. Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982.