Isak Dinesen was the pseudonym used by the Danish author Karen Dinesen Blixen-Finecke (1885-1962). Her stories place her among Denmark's greatest authors.
Isak Dinesen was born on April 17, 1885, the daughter of a wealthy landowner, adventurer, and author. In 1914 she went to Africa, married, and bought a coffee plantation. After her divorce in 1921 she managed the plantation alone until economic disaster forced her to return to Denmark in 1931, where she lived the rest of her life on the family estate, Rungstedlund, near Copenhagen.
The years in Africa were the happiest of Dinesen's life, for she felt, from the first, that she belonged there. Had she not been forced to leave, she wrote later, she would not have become an author. In the dark days just before leaving, she began to write down some of the stories she had told to her friends among the colonists and natives. She wrote in English, the language she used in Africa. Her books usually appeared simultaneously in America, England, and Denmark, written in English and then rewritten in Danish.
Dinesen's first collection, Seven Gothic Tales, appeared in America in 1934, where it was a literary sensation, immediately popular with both critics and public. The Danish critical reaction was cool. Danish literature was still dominated by naturalism, as it had been for the past 60 years, and her work was a reaction against this sober, realistic fiction of analysis.
Dinesen's second book, Out of Africa (1937), a brilliant recreation of her African years, was a critical and popular success wherever it appeared. Although it has little in common, stylistically and formally, with her stories, it describes the experiences which formed her views about life and art. The third central work in her authorship, Winter's Tales, appeared in 1942.
A characteristic of Dinesen's works is the sense that the reader is listening to a storyteller. She wanted to revive in her "listeners" the primitive love of mystery that she found in her African audience, which she felt was like the audiences that listened to Homer, the Old Testament stories, the Arabian Nights, and the sagas (elements from all of which she skillfully wove into her stories). She attempted to reawaken the sense of myth and, with myth, the sense of man's tragic grandeur, which she felt had been lost.
Fifteen years after Winter's Tales, Dinesen published Last Tales (1957), containing some of her finest stories. This volume includes "The Cardinal's First Tale," an excellent defense of her art and a critique of naturalism. In 1958 appeared Anecdotes of Destiny. Her last book, Shadows on the Grass (1961), is a pendant to Out of Africa.
Dinesen was the first Danish author to achieve world fame since Hans Christian Andersen and Søren Kierkegaard. Her influence on Danish literature was especially strong in the 1950s when, through her stories and personal contact, she was an inspiration to younger authors searching for new means of expression. She died on Sept. 6, 1962.
Further Reading on Karen Dinesen Blixen-Finecke
Useful studies of Dinesen in English are Eric O. Johannesson, The World of Isak Dinesen (1961), and Robert Langbaum, The Gayety of Vision: A Study of Isak Dinesen's Art (1964).
Additional Biography Sources
Dinesen, Thomas, My sister, Isak Dinesen, London: Joseph, 1975.
Migel, Parmenia, Tania: a biography and memoir of Isak Dinesen: first published as Titania, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1987, 1967.
Pelensky, Olga Anastasia, Isak Dinesen: the life and imagination of a seducer, Athens: Ohio University Press, 1991.
Thurman, Judith, Isak Dinesen: the life of a storyteller, New York, N.Y.: St Martin's Press, 1982.
Henriksen, Aage, Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen: the work and the life, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.