Stambaugh's Public Lecture on Danish Writer Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen
CINS is pleased to feature an excellent address delivered in the elegance of the Senate Chamber at the University of Alberta on Wednesday, 28th of October, 1998, before a mixed full house of members of the Danish and general Scandinavian community plus generally interested staff and students. All had been attracted by the "Grand Opening" of the Blixen / Dinesen Exhibition, created by the Karen Blixen Museum in Denmark and made available through the Royal Danish Embassy in Ottawa. It was on loan to the U of A from the 26th of October to the 13th of November. The opening lecture, given by Professor Emeritus Sara Stambaugh, herself a creative writer and Blixen scholar, was so well received that that wider dissemination seemed desirable.
CINS invites all visitors to this website to spend a few minutes following the astonishing life story of Karen Blixen, also known as Isak Dinesen.
ISAK DINESEN IN AMERICA
It's good to see you here, some Danish, some Canadian, and some who are both. I want to begin by thanking the Government of Denmark for providing the exhibition we've just seen. It's yet another example of the special ties that have grown between our countries in recent years. Thank you for letting us share it.
Many of you will be surprised at the topic I've chosen for this evening--and by the name I've used in my title, because you know the woman featured in the exhibition as Karen Blixen or as Isak Dinesen or perhaps as the Baroness Blixen, while at least one of you remembers her as Tanne. Each of those names reflects a separate aspect of her life. I've chosen this name to identify a particular aspect you may not be aware of, Karen Blixen's remarkable career in North America, especially in the United States. I hope my subject won't offend Canadian or Danish nationalists. One of Karen Blixen's later mottoes, after all, was, "Be bold. Be bold. Be not too bold."
Isak Dinesen didn't come into being until 1934. Karen Dinesen, in contrast, was born in 1885. As a girl she studied painting, dabbled in writing, and dreamed of becoming an aristocrat, as she did when she sailed to Africa in 1914 and married Bror von Blixen-Finecke.
In Africa she threw herself into the role of Baroness and her con-ception of a long-vanished aristocrasy. As an example, on one trip to Denmark she took along a small African servant. She bought him fashionable European suits to set off his turban and traveled with him in the manner of an eighteenth-century lady, rather like the Marchallin in Richard Strauss's Der Rosencavalier (Migel, p.72).
By 1931, of course, her African life had dissolved. Her marriage had broken up, the man she loved had been killed in a plane crash, and, worst of all, she'd lost the farm. Her identity as the Baroness vanished, even to the title she'd used for fifteen years, because Bror Blixen remarried in 1929, replacing her with a new Baroness Blixen.
Critics are justified, I think, in seeing Pellegrina Leoni, the central character of "The Dreamers," as a reflection of Karen Blixen's view of her situation. In the story the great prima donna Pellegrina loses her voice in a fire that breaks out in mid-performance and with it her name and identity. In a striking passage, Pellegrina tells her friend Marcus Cocoza,
"The time has come for me to be that: a woman called one name or another. And if she is unhappy we shall not think a great deal about it . . .
"And if," she said, "I come to think very much of what happens to that one woman, why I shall go away, at once, and be someone else: a woman who makes lace in the town, or who teaches children to read, or a lady traveling to Jerusalem to pray at the Holy Sepulcher. There are many that I can be. If they are happy or unhappy, or if they are fools or wise people, those women, I shall not think a great deal about that. I will not be one person again, Marcus, I will be always many persons from now. Never again, will I have my heart and my whole life bound up with one woman to suffer so much." (SGT, p. 345)
Pellegrina Leoni reinvents herself first as whore, then as revolutionary, and finally as saint, each time with a separate name and identity. Karen Bixen reinvented herself as the writer Isak Dinesen.
The question is why Karen Blixen decided to reincarnate herself as a writer, when anyone who has tried knows how hard it is simply to get in print, much less to sell enough books to make a bare living. But the Baroness hadn't been known for practicality, and of the new identities she considered, the popular romantic image of the writer must have appealed to her.
She had thought about another possibility. "As I have probably written," she tells her brother Thomas early in 1931, ". . . I have wondered whether I could learn to cook in Paris for a year or two, and then perhaps get a post in a restaurant or a hotel" (Letters, p. 419). She puts aside that idea because of the hard times the restaurant trade was probably going through in the early days of the depression. Even though she eventually invented the role for herself vicariously in "Babette's Feast," the vision of Karen Blixen in the working kitchen of a busy restaurant is enough to boggle the mind.
Luckily, in the same letter she announces, ". . . I have begun to do what we brothers and sisters do when we don't know what else to resort to,--I have -started to write a book." As I've indicated, the dream of actually making a living as a writer, especially in a small country (as Canadian writers know) is hardly more practical than of becoming a master chef in a year or two. Nevertheless, she adds in a freakish burst of practicality, "I have been writing in English because I thought it would be more profitable . . ." (Letters, p. 419).
Having decided on a new identity, she threw herself into achieving it. In August 1931 she returned to Denmark, forty-six years old and destitute. She wouldn't have had the money to live on without her mother and her brother Thomas, who together supported her for the next three years, as she worked at her stories on the family estate at Rungstedlund--and tried to sell her manuscript.
Writing, after all, is one thing, but it's child's play next to the difficulty of finding a publisher. I might add that the more out of the usual the work is, the less likely it is to find a home with a commercial press. Publishers, after all, are businessmen. They're not likely to undertake the considerable cost of printing and marketing any manuscript they don't anticipate making a profit from.
Even worse, it's almost a truism that volumes of stories don't sell. Even though the pieces in Karen Blixen's first collection average over fifty pages and are technically tales, not short stories, they don't constitute a novel. Out of curiosity, I checked a list of best-selling fiction in the United States for 1932, the year Blixen tried to market her manuscript. In The Popular Book James Hart lists Erskine Caldwell'sTobacco Road, Lloyd C. Douglas's Forgive Us Our Trespasses, Charles Morgan's The Fountain, Walter B. Pitkin's Life Begins at Forty, and Ellery Queen's The Egyptian Cross Mystery (p. 314). All, for better or worse, are novels.
Not surprisingly, Karen Blixen had trouble finding a publisher. It's not clear how many rejections she got, especially because that's not the sort of information a woman of her temperament was likely to share. In her 1931 letter to Thomas she mentioned a reaction from "a publisher called Morley" (Letters, p. 419), and in 1932 was apparently turned down by what should have been the most promising of the British firms, Faber and Faber (Thurman, p. 270), a house still known for the quality of its titles. One of its authors and editors, incidentally, was T. S. Eliot. It's interesting to speculate if he had any hand in her rejection.
Finally realizing that the only way to find a publisher was by pulling strings, Karen Blixen arranged some. A family friend, a Lady Islington, arranged a luncheon party in London for Karen Blixen to meet the publisher of the British firm of Putnam's, Constant Huntington. Apparently she went out of her way to charm him, but when she brought up the subject of her manuscript, he flatly refused to read it and advised her instead to send him a novel.
She had first looked to Britain, as was natural after living for seventeen years in a British colony and having British relatives, including her grandmother. Meantime, Thomas had sent his sister's manuscript to a friend he'd somewhere met, Dorothy Canfield, an American novelist little read nowadays but a respected figure in the American literary landscape of the early twentieth century.
Dorothy Canfield liked what she read and sometime in 1932 passed Blixen's manuscript to Robert Haas of the American firm of Harrison Smith and Robert Haas. Haas liked the stories, too, but in Frans Lasson's words "[declined] to publish a collection of short stories by an unknown European writer" (Letters, p. xxxv). Still, this was Karen Blixen's best (and probably only) lead. She followed it up the following year by sending Haas two more stories.
Miraculously, Haas changed his mind. It's worth mentioning that at least until World War II there were a few commercial presses which occasionally published what a grocery store would call a loss leader, partly, perhaps, because of the prestige a literary work would bring to the house, perhaps partly from a sense of obligation to serious literature.
Nevertheless, with an eye to at least covering production costs, Haas made two conditions. First, Dorothy Canfield had to lend her weight to the work by writing an introduction. More important given Karen Blixen's financial situation, Haas didn't give her an advance, as is usual upon acceptance of a manuscript (the amount to be deducted from expected royalties). Instead, she wasn't to be paid, in Judith Thurman's words, "until a few thousand copies had been sold" (Thurman, p. 270).
Though without an advance, Karen Blixen had miraculously passed the first great hurtle in becoming an author, though with a publisher who didn't expect anyone to buy her book. Suddenly, in an even greater miracle, the problem of sales vanished. On February 19, 1934, Haas telegrammed that the new book (which he had convinced her to call Seven Gothic Tales) had been chosen by the American Book-of-the-Month Club.
Clearly, in those early days, Karen Blixen was naive about the ways of publishing, especially in the United States. She took the choice to be a literary accolade rather than a guarantee of massive sales by what was probably the biggest mass marketing organ of the North American book trade. In her circumstances it was better than a prize and was, in fact, like the hun's grave unearthed by Hans Christian Andersen's Ib in the story "Ib and Christine": it was "the best of all things," a guarantee of publicity and wide sales.
If Blixen thought that she'd received an American literary honor, it's interesting to speculate what Haas's reaction must have been and to imagine his frantic orders to his printers to turn on full production, knowing as he did that a choice by the Book-of-the-Month Club would catapult his publishing house to major importance. I don't have publishing records, but I'd be willing to bet that the insured success ofSeven Gothic Tales was a major reason for Smith and Haas's merger with Random House shortly afterwards. Still today, Random House is one of the biggest and most powerful publishing firms in North America.
Meantime, Haas had a problem. As if the gamble of taking on a book of stories by an unknown European hadn't been enough, the author insisted upon publishing under a pseudonym, "a decision [in Lasson's words] that despite warnings the publisher [was] unable to make her retract" (Letters, p. xxxv). It would appear that in the manner of Pellegrina Leoni, Karen Blixen was determined to appear in a new and separate identity in her role as an American author.
Accordingly, Isak Dinesen was born in New York City on April 9, 1934, to the fanfare of enthusiastic United States reviews. The question always comes up of why Karen Blixen chose this particular name for her incarnation as an American writer. The first name, Isak, is Danish for Isaac, the reason for the usual American pronunciation. It means laughter and comes from the Old Testament story about the reaction of Abraham's wife Sarah, when she overhears three visiting angels predicting that she is going to have a child. She is ninety, and her laughter has a distinctly cynical ring (Genesis 18:12). Karen Blixen probably chose it, in part, to reflect the view of life she'd learned in Africa as the Baroness Blixen, in part to reflect the miraculous birth of her book when she herself was eight days short of forty-nine. As for Dinesen, she had at least as much right to her maiden name as she had to her former husband's. I suppose she could equally have chosen her mother's family name, but Dinesen, after all, has a more aristocratic ring than Westenholz.
As I've indicated, in New York Seven Gothic Tales instantly became the talk of the town. The American reaction to the collection is reflected in the opening paragraph of Dorothy Canfield's introduction:
The person who has set his teeth into a kind of fruit new to him, is usually as eager as he is unable to tell you how it tastes. It is not enough for him to be munching away on it with relish. No, he must twist his tongue trying to get its strange new flavor into words, which never yet had any power to capture colors or tastes. "It's not like a peach," you hear him say, biting out another mouthful from the oddly colored and oddly shaped thing, and chewing thoughtfully, "nor yet like a pear. Perhaps like a dead-ripe pineapple. Yet only if it had always been watered with fine old wine. Grown out of doors in Siberia, too, for all it has that southern tang. Nothing hothouse about it." (SGT, p. v)
Publicity for the book was only helped when Canfield went on to emphasize the mystery of its authorship:
Yet I can't even tell you the first fact about it which everybody wants to know about a book--who is the author. In this case, all that we are told is that the author is a Continental European, writing in English, although that is not native to his pen, who wishes his-or-her identity not to be known, although between us be it said, it is safe from the setting of the tales to guess that he is not a Sicilian. (SGT, pp. v-vi)
What an advertising ploy!
Of course, everyone wanted to know who the writer was, and speculation only increased after one reviewer, Mark Van Doren, indicated that the mysterious Isak Dinesen was a "Danish Lady" (Thurman, p. 271). Robert Haas revealed her identity shortly after the book appeared, but the name Karen Blixen had little meaning to Americans, and in North America she remained Isak Dinesen.
Karen Blixen must have been elated at her successful debut in her new role, especially when she received word that British rights had been bought by Constant Huntington, the publisher who had refused to look at her manuscript in London. The British edition came out on September 6 and was well received, though less ecstatically than in New York.
Her debut as an author had been like a young writer's dream (or a bad, popular American movie), and Karen Blixen had, shall we say, romantic ideas of instant riches. Thanks to Robert Haas's original prudence when he'd agreed to publish the book, she hadn't gotten any money for it and continued to live at Rungstedlund on the charity of her mother and brother, whom she had to ask for cigarette money.
To give an idea of the wealth she expected, while she waited through 1934 for her first check, she made plans to return to Africa and to build a children's hospital on the Masai reserve near her old farm with her profits. She was so serious that when she heard that Albert Schweitzer was visiting England, she went there and consulted him. Dr. Schweitzer wasn't encouraging, and at Christmas she received her first check from Robert Haas. It was for $8,000. As Karen Blixen told Parmenia Migel years later, ". . . I soon realized that the expenses of the undertaking would by a long way exceed my means--you do not make as much money on writing books as is generally believed" (Migel, p. 101).
Nevertheless, though $8,000 was less than Karen Blixen had expected, it was a large amount for less than a year's sales of stories by an unknown author. I don't even know what Seven Gothic Tales sold for, but Anecdotes of Destiny, which came out in 1959, sold for $3.75 U. S., and Seven Gothic Tales must have sold for at least a dollar less. If she received the usual ten percent, at a conservative estimate North American sales must have been at the very least 30, 000--less than five years after the stock market crash. Henceforth Isak Dinesen was a force to be reckoned with on the American writing scene.
Meantime, Karen Blixen's American debut hadn't gone unnoticed in her homeland, and plans were soon underway for a Danish edition. Preparing it, however, was a problem. She didn't like the work of several translators, one of whom had the impudence to offer to simultaneously correct her writing. After firing them one by one, she prepared the Danish version herself, as she subsequently did all of her books.
The peculiarity of her translations is that they aren't translations but parallel versions of the same stories. Though I worked on Danish for almost a year, I didn't learn enough to read the stories in both versions, though I could painstakingly translate the Danish at especially puzzling points in the English texts. I remember one odd phrase at the end of "The Cardinal's Third Tale," when the protagonist, Lady Flora, remarks about eighteenth-century satirist Jonathan Swift, "I love the Dean--(and lead a heart)!" (LT, p. 97).
The Danish version didn't help, because in it Karen Blixen omitted the second phrase. The Danish versions also include details omitted in the English ones, as a Danish friend, Bo Hakon Jo/rgensen, pointed out to me at the 1985 Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen Centenary Conference at the University of Minnesota. Bo leaned confidentially over the table we were sharing to describe a shocking detail, included in Karen Blixen's Danish version of "The Poet" but omitted from Isak Dinesen's English story.
The reason for the difference in the versions is best presented in Karen Blixen's own introduction to Syv Fantastiske Fortaellinger:
When, for my own amusement, I wrote this book in English I didn't think it would have any interest for Danish readers. Now it has been its destiny to be translated into other languages, and it was therefore natural that it should also be published in my own country. I have very much wanted it to be published in Danish as an original Danish book, and not in any--no matter how good--translation. (Thurman, p. 272)
Obviously, Karen Blixen cared a great deal about her reception by her Danish countrymen and wanted to be accepted as a Danish writer.
The Danish version of Seven Gothic Tales came out September 25, 1935. Unfortunately, Blixen's Danish debut wasn't a success. Biographers, critics, and commentators all stress that the book was not congenial to the literary climate of the day. Worst was one scalding review which hurt her so deeply that, according to Thurman, she kept it for the rest of her life and brought it out to query friends about its accuracy. With a self-righteousness worthy of America's current Moral Majority, the critic accused the book of "shallowness, caprice . . ., snobbery, name dropping" and moral perversity (Thurman, p.269). As unlikely and astonishing as it was that Karen Blixen had found an American publisher, it seems even less likely that she could have initially found one in Denmark.
Migel mentions another reason for Blixen's less-than-enthusiastic reception in Denmark, probably gleaned from the author: "Some of the reviewers seemed very annoyed that a Danish author should have made a great stir abroad before they themselves bestowed their approbation . . ." (Migel, p. 100).
Karen Blixen longed for recognition in Denmark, and she never again made that mistake. All of the subsequent books published during her lifetime came out either first in Danish or else simultaneously in both Danish and English. Moreover, with the exception of that first book and of The Angelic Avengers, which came out under a new pseudonym in both languages, all of her subsequent books were published in Denmark under her legal name, Karen Blixen, but in North America under Isak Dinesen, as though, like Pellegrina Leoni she were living two separate identities.
Karen Blixen never thought she received her due in Denmark. It wasn't until the later nineteen-forties that Danish taste began to catch up with her and she won a following of young writers and intellectuals. From that time forward her Danish reputation climbed, and in 1950 she gave the first of the radio talks which, in Frans Lasson's words, "[did] much to make an otherwise exclusive writer known and loved throughout the whole country" (Letters, p. xxxviii). By then Karen Blixen was sixty-five and had waited for sixteen years to become a celebrity in her native land.
In contrast, from 1934 when Seven Gothic Tales first appeared, the career of Isak Dinesen rolled on triumphantly in America, especially after the appearance of Out of Africa in 1938 (the year following Danish and British publication). That work, simultaneously intensely personal and strangely distanced, gained her new respect as a writer. Just as important in practical terms, it was published under Robert Haas's new signature, Random House, probably the reason Out of Africa was once again a Book-of-the-Month Club choice, thus insuring hefty sales for that book as well as continuing ones for her first. Still, like Seven Gothic Tales, Out of Africa didn't make the best-seller list. It was outsold by, among others, Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, Rachel Field's All This and Heaven Too, Marjorie Rawlings' The Yearling, and Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case of the Substitute Face (Hart, p. 315).
Isak Dinesen's popularity in the United States continued, as did selection of her books by the Book-of-the-Month Club, Winter's Tales in 1942 and, more surprisingly, The Angelic Avengers upon its belated appearance in 1946, even though this was the only one of Karen Blixen's American books not published under the name of Isak Dinesen but as by Pierre Andrézel, because she rightly considered it inferior to her serious work.
To give an idea of the power of advertising in the American book trade (and in establishing Isak Dinesen's American popularity), I can't resist reading you an especially outrageous example of American puffery from the dust jacket of the Random House Angelic Avengers, quoted from Dorothy Canfield's review for the Book-of-the-Month Club News:
A novel of superlatively fine literary quality, written with distinction in an exquisite style, telling a fascinating story of mystery, adventure, and pure young love.
Were every warm-hearted, affectionate, "nice" girls made so alive, so compellingly interesting, as the two heroines? Was ever virtue given such epic power over wrongdoing as in this romance . . . ? Did ever simple, whole-hearted compassion so give despairing hearts such wings on which to soar up over the prison walls of evil into impassioned faith in the ultimate triumph of good?
A review like that goes a long way towards explaining how much American advertising did towards allowing Karen Blixen to live a comfortable life in Denmark in her latter years--and even to install central heating in Rungstedlund in 1960 after twenty-nine years of shivering (Thurman, p. 433).
Curiously, though the last book published during her lifetime, Shadows on the Grass (1961), was again chosen by the Book-of-the-Month Club, her last two collections of stories, Last Tales (1957) andAnecdotes of Destiny (1958) were not. (See Thurman, p. 404.) Still, five choices out of seven isn't a bad average, and the subsequent wide sales are the reason it's so easy to pick up copies of books by Isak Dinesen at used book sales in Edmonton, especially of The Angelic Avengers, because no one looks for Dinesen or Blixen under A for Andrézel.
Still, though the identity of Isak Dinesen had early been revealed in North America, Book-of-the-Month Club subscribers are not likely to be readers of, say, The New York Times Book Review. Isak Dinesen remained a figure of mystery, at least partly because in his influential Modern Library series, Robert Haas reprinted Seven Gothic Tales with its original teasing introduction by Dorothy Canfield.
I well remember my own excitement around 1950, when, leafing through a used copy of Life magazine, I stumbled across an article on the Danish Baroness Karen Blixen, her identity not simply revealed but celebrated in big, glossy black-and-white photographs. I still remember one in particular, showing her leaning dramatically from a window, striking, turbaned, and emaciated.
That feature in Life was an indication of her continued success in North America. If, as I recall, it was around 1950 that it appeared, it may have been timed to coincide with another American venture, because that year she began publishing regularly in the Ladies' Home Journal.
In those days American popular magazines carried far more than the current fare of sensationalism and sexual scandal. Ladies' magazines in particular were written then for a literate audience of wives confined at home in days before the job market was open to married women, and they featured fiction, often very good fiction by very good writers. In the nineteen-thirties, for example, F. Scott Fitzgerald had lived on the sales of his stories to The Saturday Evening Post, while Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea (like the picture essay on Isak Dinesen) first appeared in Life. Redbook, Cosmopolitan (before it was reinvented by Helen Gurley Brown), and, especially, The Ladies' Home Journal were prime literary markets, as Chatelaine was for Canadian writers during the nineteen-sixties. Now, almost nothing is left but The New Yorker, with its large purse but rather limited view of what stories it will condescend to print.
My point is that the United States had again provided Isak Dinesen with a prime, lucrative market. It's worth noting that some of her finest stories, among them "Sorrow-Acre," "Babette's Feast," "The Ring" and "The Immortal Story," appeared in the American Ladies' Home Journal.
Though she had added to her popular audience, it's worth noting that she was also taken seriously by American writers other than Dorothy Canfield. The most famous example is the accolade she received in 1954 from Ernest Hemingway. In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature, he named three other writers who, he graciously said, deserved the prize more than he did (though, he really believed, of course, that no one in the universe did). He named Carl Sandberg, Bernard Berenson, and "that beautiful writer Isac Dinesen." Thurman notes that part of his reason was that he'd hunted lions in Africa with Dinesen's former husband, Bror Blixen, and quotes Hemingway as writing to a friend, "Blickie's wife is a damn sight better than any Swede they ever gave it to . . ." (Thurman, n., p. 384). Incidentally, Karen Blixen herself was considered for the prize in 1956 but lost it to Albert Camus, certainly an honorable defeat.
In spite of her long, successful writing career, Karen Blixen still thought she was unappreciated in Denmark. In 1957 she told a friend, "Lately, I have had the feeling in Denmark of being under suspicion, almost as if I were on parole" (Thurman, p. 408). It's hardly surprising that she jumped at an invitation to visit the United States early in 1959, all expenses paid, in the persona, of course, of Isak Dinesen. Early in her trip she visited Boston, still in those days famous for the phrase guaranteed to pack movie houses in every other city across North America: Banned in Boston. Not surprisingly, she didn't like Boston, but the place of Isak Dinesen's birth, New York, was a different matter.
In thinking about that visit, I can't get F. Scott Fitzgerald out of my mind and his picture of New York City in The Great Gatsby. In Fitzgerald's novel, New York is a wild, vigorous, vulgar place, where, he says, anything can happen, even Jay Gatsby, who was born, Fitzgerald notes, out of his Platonic conception of himself. If Africa had been a stage grand enough for Karen Dinesen to invent herself as the Baroness Blixen, New York City allowed her to live out her conception of Isak Dinesen.
In New York Isak Dinesen got more adulation than she could have dreamed of, not for Andy Warhol's fifteen minutes but for almost three-and-a-half months. Crowds flocked to hear her talks and recitations, which had to be rescheduled to accommodate yet more people clamoring to hear her, until, near the end of her stay, she collapsed from a combination of over-excitement, exhaustion, and malnutrition.
As for her social life, a list of the people she met reads like a who's who of America, from composers like Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti, to socialites like Gloria Vanderbilt, to actors like Ruth Ford and Zachary Scott, to photographer Cecil Beaton, to, of course, writers. I haven't found a list of all she met, but her biographers mention Truman Capote, John Steinbeck, Carson McCullers, Marianne Moore, Pearl Buck, and Arthur Miller. Miller escorted his wife, the American Isak Dinesen most wanted to meet, Marilyn Monroe. Dinesen also met a young man less famous than those I've mentioned but important to the future life of Isak Dinesen in America after Karen Blixen had died and been buried in Denmark three-and-a-half years later, on September 11, 1962.
Robert Langbaum was a brilliant young scholar who had already established a solid and highly respected place for himself among students of British literature with his 1957 study, The Poetry of Experience, which revolutionized understanding of the nineteenth-century dramatic monologue. Now he was studying the work of Isak Dinesen. After meeting her, he went to Denmark the following summer and received her help for the book he published the year after she died, The Gayety of Vision. A serious study by so respected a scholar as Robert Langbaum went far to establish Isak Dinesen as an important literary artist not to be taken lightly on the basis of her popular appeal, which she shared, after all, with Charles Dickens.
In the following ten years more serious work on her appeared, a flood of it, both in Denmark and in the United States. Meantime, the University of Chicago had begun to reissue her stories in quality paperback, using the original Random House plates and selling at between three and five dollars Canadian. The time was ripe for Isak Dinesen's resurrection, which proved more successful than Pellegrina Leoni's in the story "Echoes."
Thanks to Robert Langbaum, students of literature hadn't lost sight of Isak Dinesen, as illustrated, for example, by the 1985 centenary conference in Minneapolis, I referred to earlier, which drew scholars from across North America and across Europe. Her real da capo, a musical term I've borrowed from "Echoes" and which instructs musicians to start over again, began with Judith Thurman's 1982 biography, Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller. I don't know how the publicity campaign for Thurman's book was orchestrated, but it was reviewed everywhere. Not only did Thurman's biography revive interest in Isak Dinesen; it made possible the 1985 movie Out of Africa, starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. Apparently movie makers had bought rights to the book years before but couldn't find a way to tell the story until Thurman's biography gave them a narrative line.
Two years later the film version of "Babette's Feast" came to us from Denmark and swept the United States with a frenzy comparable to that of Isak Dinesen's 1959 visit to New York. Restaurants from New York City to San Francisco printed special menus featuring Babette's Feast, while a popular cartoon warned of possible ptomaine poisoning. Fifteen years after Karen Blixen had died, Isak Dinesen had recaptured America.
She even reappeared in New York in the person of the distinguished American actress, Julie Harris, who starred in a one-man play she had commissioned from William Luce. Called Lucifer's Child, it was subsequently broadcast in a two-hour television special.
As outrageous as the title of my talk must have sounded, I hope I've convinced you that Isak Dinesen was and is American, and at least partly Canadian, too, thanks to the influence of our powerful neighbor to the south--and the Book-of-the-Month Club. That we can claim at least a portion of her makes Karen Blixen an especially apt subject for the exhibition we've seen this evening.
Dinesen, Isak. "The Dreamers." In Seven Gothic Tales. Intro. Dorothy Canfield. New York: The Modern Library, 1934. Pp. 271-355.
Hart, James D. The Popular Book: History of America's Literary Taste. Berkeley: U of California Press. 1963.
Lasson, Frans, ed., intro., and chronology. Isak Dinesen: Letters from Africa. Trans. Anne Born. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1981.
Migel, Parmenia. Titania: The Biography of Isak Dinesen. New York. Random House, 1967.
Thurman, Judith. Isak Dinesen: The Life of the Storyteller. New York: St Martin's Press, 1982.