Isak Dinesen was born Karen Christentze Dinesen on April 17, 1885 on a rural estate in northern Denmark. She was the second of four children born to parents who were vaguely connected to Danish aristocracy. She had a happy childhood until her father committed suicide when she was ten. His suicide apparently took place because he was afflicted with syphilis. The tragedy profound affected Dinesen. Later in life, she would note the irony of her later contracting the disease that effectively ended her father's life.
Dinesen was long interested in writing, and published a few short stories at age twenty-two under the name, "Osceola." Her primary focus, however, was painting, which she studied for several years at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. In her post-university years, Dinesen fell in love with her second cousin, a Swede named Hans von Blixen-Finecke, the son of Baron Blixen. When Hans did not return her love, Dinesen decided instead to marry Hans's twin brother, Bror. With the encouragement of relatives, Dinesen and Bror Blixen decided to start a coffee farm in East Africa. Bror headed there first, where Dinesen later met him. They were married on January 14, 1914 in Mombasa. Soon after they headed to their farm located outside of Nairobi in what is now Kenya.
The Blixen's farm is the setting for Out of Africa as well as some of Dinesen's other African tales, Shadows in the Grass, 1961, and Letters from Africa, 1981. The property initially only had seven hundred acres, but they later expanded it, after they bought another farm, to a total of six thousand acres. Dinesen, then Baroness Blixen, remained on the farm for seventeen years. She was twenty-seven when she arrived and forty-four when she left. The many sights she saw and people she met take up the pages of Out of Africa, but the book is not a strict memoir or autobiography. Dinesen's true biography during those years provides a much bleaker picture than what she captures on her written page.
The first major tragedy in Africa happened in 1915 when Dinesen caught syphilis from her husband, who had been having extra-marital affairs. Dinesen had to return to Europe to be treated. The disease then had no cure, but her symptoms were arrested after treatment with arsenic. The syphilis would continue to physically degenerate her nervous system for the rest of her days.
The Blixens separated pretty much after Dinesen returned to Africa, although they officially remained married until 1925. Dinesen herself started to have affairs, her most significant one being with Denys Finch-Hatton, a classic British aristocrat who figures prominently in Out of Africa. In her book, Dinesen never explicitly states that they were lovers, but the 1985 Hollywood version of "Out of Africa" made their romance famous. Their affair was not without its stresses though, including two miscarriages. When Denys died in a plane crash in 1931, Dinesen knew that she had lost the love of her life.
Following Finch-Hatton's death and the bankruptcy of the coffee farm, Dinesen returned to Denmark and moved back into the estate where she was born, Rungstedlund. It was after she returned home and was living with her family that Dinesen began to write in earnest. She adopted the pen name, "Isak Dinesen," the term "Isak" being the Hebrew word for "one who laughs." She also decided that she should write in English, because it is a language that is more widely read than Danish. Her first collection was Seven Gothic Tales published in 1934. It secured Dinesen's reputation under her new name and was well received in both America and England. In 1935 and 1936, Dinesen wrote Out of Africa which was first published in 1937 in England and 1938 in America. It was an immediate success. Her later publications include Winter Tales in 1942, Last Tales in 1957, and Shadows in the Grass in 1961. She died in 1962 of malnutrition in Runstedlund.
Isak Dinesen longed to be a storyteller in the tradition of Scherherzade, the narrator of Arabian Nights. As she once expressed in an interview, her true ambition was to "tell stories, beautiful stories." Dinesen's desire to be a storyteller is obvious in Out of Africa. The book appears to be a memoir, but is arranged as a series of anecdotes rather than as a chronology of Dinesen's life. Because the book is neither memoir, autobiography, nor novel, it defies being neatly placed into a genre. Some critics, such as Susan Lasner, view Dinesen's decision to make the text structurally ambiguous as an intentional, and subversive commentary against the colonial government that she was describing. Others simply note that Out of Africa fulfills Dinesen's desire to tell amazing stories, in an anecdotal fashion. Robert Langbaum points out that the book is structured in five parts, like the classical tragedies that Dinesen so admired. The initial four parts present Africa as a pastoral paradise; the final fifth part turns tragic and depicts Africa as "paradise lost." Overall, the most frequent comment on Dinesen's work relates to her rich, lyrical style. Because of its detailed beauty, Truman Capote once called Out of Africa, "one of the most beautiful books of the twentieth century."