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"After you, Baroness!" Ernest Hemingway and Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen).


Ernest Hemingway and Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) never met, though they both coveted the Nobel Prize in 1954, the year Hemingway deservedly won it. But they had read each other, and both had been touched by Africa, where they moved in the same circles. The landscape and its people stamped itself on their literary imaginations, imbued with painterly visions indebted to Cezanne. Tire African continent provided both authors with a space for activities, relationships, and inspiration that allowed for reinvention of identities away from family histories, conventional sexuality, bourgeois restrictions, and cultural boundaries.

KEY WORDS: Africa, Sexuality, Identity, Boundaries, Colonialism


Ernest Hemingway and Karen Blixen, better known as Isak Dinesen in the English-speaking world, never met, but they knew of one another. When Harvey Breit telephoned the Finca for an interview following the Nobel Prize announcement in 1954, Hemingway responded: "I would have been happy--happier--today if the prize had gone to that beautiful writer Isak Dinesen, to Bernard Berenson, who has devoted a lifetime to the most lucid and best writing on painting that has been produced, and I would have been most happy to know that the prize had been awarded to Carl Sandburg ..(Baker, life Story 527). While the Baroness might not have been Hemingway's first choice, she was delighted to appear on his list. On Danish TV, she announced that Hemingway's endorsement had meant more to her than two Nobel Prizes, except for the money. As Clara Svendsen writes about her employer in Notater om Karen Blixen [Notes on Karen Blixen], she "did indeed love fame as much as her countryman Hans Christian Andersen" (133). (1) A Hans Bendix cartoon in the Danish newspaper Politiken headed "Nobelt," Danish for "noble" and a pun on the Nobel Prize, depicts the Baroness in furs curtseying to a grandiose-looking Hemingway as King. Nonetheless, Hemingway and Blixen had a great deal in common. They knew many of the same people in Africa and published major works set on the continent, and both wrote about its landscape in a style indebted to Cezanne. They also overlapped in terms of their relationship to animals and to hunting, and they both found in Africa a place to consider and renegotiate conventional constructions of gender and identity. In her letter of congratulation to Hemingway in 1954, Blixen wrote: "I have sometimes imagined what it would have been like to be on safari with you on the plains of Africa" (Lasson and Engelbrecht 253).

Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke, Swedish nobleman, elephant, lion (and woman) hunter, introduced young Karen, nicknamed Tanne, to Africa and to marital troubles. Soon after their East Africa wedding in 1914, she was diagnosed with syphilis and had to return to Denmark for treatments. In 1934, Hemingway met "Blickie" when they both sailed on the Gripsholm from Africa to Europe, and the two men had talked lions, Bror's specialty. Bror had started Tanganyika Guides with Philip Percival, Pop of Green Hills of Africa and the Africa journal, and the inspiration for Wilson in "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber." Subsequently, Bror became Hemingway's hunting and drinking buddy. In 1935, he and his third wife or companion, Eva Dickson, had honeymooned with the Hemingways in Key West, with daily fishing trips aboard The Pilar. Hemingway competed for the biggest marlin with Bror in the audience (Arnold 268-70), and Bror proofed the Swahili in Green Hills of Africa (Reynolds, 1930s, 204-05), though apparently he could not spell "cattle" (Lasson and Svendsen 96).


In 1936, the two men met again in a hangar in Paris. Hemingway was returning from the Spanish Civil War and advised Bror to go down there and shoot people rather than lions. Bror had just arrived with aviatrix Beryl Markham, who had flown her Leopard Moth the 6,000 miles from the Serengeti to Paris in six days, with a near-death experience over Sardinia, where they were caught in a white-out and violent turbulence. Beryl had avoided crashing by taking the plane upwards, higher and higher, as Ulf Aschan recounts in his Bror Blixen biography. Aschan stresses Bror's calm in the face of mortal danger: "Blix trusted unconditionally her [Beryl's] ability as a pilot and soon dozed off, not to wake up until landing in Cannes" (201). (2) After this brush with death, Beryl and Bror had refueled and then continued to Paris. At the Ritz that night, they celebrated their survival with Hemingway, who was working on "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," which, according to Alex Vardamis and Justine Owens, possibly draws on both the flight with the Leopard Moth and Hemingway's personal life. As they note in their analysis in "Ernest Hemingway and the Near-Death Experience," he had flown out of the Serengeti on 16 January 1934 and had passed Kilimanjaro on his way to the Nairobi hospital where he was treated for a prolapsed lower intestine that followed his amoebic dysentery (Vardamis and Owens 210; Baker, Life Story 251).

Both Hemingway and Blixen link flying with immortality. In the conclusion of "Snows," Harry feverishly recalls past life experiences and, in an out-of-body sequence, finds himself flying above the plains of the Serengeti towards the summit of Kilimanjaro, having died from gangrene already. His experience in the story conforms to the typical near-death narrative, including the review of the life lived, the guide, the journey, the upward movement from darkness below towards light, and a mysterious final peace (Vardamis and Owens 215). Karen Blixen would herself link flying with eternity (Vardamis and Owens 215). She recounts in the "Wings" section of Out of Africa (1937) how once, when she and Denys were landing on her farm, an old Kikuyu came up to her and noted that they had gone up very high today. '"Did you see God,' he asked. 'No, Ndwetti,' I said, 'we did not see God.' 'Aha, then you were not up high enough,' he said ..." (210).

After economic and other disasters, Bror got a visa to the United States on Hemingway's recommendation, and he and Hemingway would hunt pheasants together on Gardiner's Island, where Bror was game warden in 1938. As Hemingway has the Ritz bartender say in A Moveable Feast, "The Baron was not a man that you forget." However, in A Moveable Feast, the Hemingway character uses the reminiscence of Bror to offer a compliment to the Baroness: "'His first wife wrote very beautifully.... She wrote perhaps the best book about Africa that I ever read'" (192).

In 1936, when Hemingway was out on the town with Bror and Beryl and worked on "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," Blixen was back in Denmark. After the death of her lover, Denys Finch-Hatton, she had returned from Kenya for good, her only skills, she would later declare, "being able to cook, take care of mad people, and write" (Lasson, [Drawings] 11). But Hemingway and Blixen shared habits and passions related to their craft. They both rose early and finished writing by lunch-time, both had their sharpened pencils ready for their morning's work, and both needed active living to do worthwhile writing (Svendsen 63, 117-18). Both rewrote and revised. While visiting Rome in 1955, Blixen agreed to an interview and was asked about rewriting. She exclaimed: "Oh, I do, I do. It's hellish. Over and over again. Then when I think I'm finished, and Clara [her secretary and companion] copies them out to send to the publishers, I look over them, and have a fit, and rewrite again" (Walter 20). And both writers believed in silence. Hemingway's icebergs had often troubled narrative surfaces, and Blixen also believed in narrative blanks. In a quotation from her short story "The Blank Page" that completes the Rome interview, the old storyteller who frames Blixen's narrative explains: "Who then ... tells a finer tale than any of us? Silence does. And where does one read a deeper tale than upon the most perfectly printed page of the most precious book? Upon the blank page" (Walter [22]). Both writers had things to be silent about, and they used silence to great advantage.

Blixen's "The Blank Page" takes place in ancient times, in an all-female convent in Portugal, where the Carmelite nuns produced the finest flax of all. From this circumstance originated the privilege that the convent procured bridal linen for all royal Portuguese princesses through generations. Before a young bride would receive her morning-after gift, high-positioned male officials, a Chamberlain or High Steward, would inspect the sheet from her wedding bed and declare the princess to have been a virgin. The sheet was never again washed and its central piece returned to the convent, where it was framed and exhibited in the secluded convent gallery. Adorned with a coronated plate of exquisite gold, the long rows of gilt frames were, as the centuries passed, studied by queens, archduchesses, and other high pilgrims, who found in the faded patterns the zodiac signs or the pictures their own imaginations and situations craved. Only one frame exhibited a snow-white piece of linen, without a name inscribed on its golden plate. And, Blixen writes, "it is in front of this piece of pure white linen that the old princesses of Portugal--worldly, wise, dutiful, long-suffering queens, wives and mothers-and their noble old playmates, bridesmaids and maids-of-honor have most often stood still" (1394). The snow-white sheet speaks most

eloquently of all the pictures in the gallery. Its silence communicates a hidden but articulate meaning, shared by the princess who lived it, the nuns who show it, and the ladies who study it. At the core of "The Blank Page" is blankness, the spot where words give way to silence and to experiences that language cannot hold.

In their Africa texts, both Blixen and Hemingway stuck to their guns by holding their tongues. Hemingway's famous iceberg statement in chapter 16 of Death in the Afternoon endorses their strategies of omission. He elaborates in A Moveable Feast, with a much-quoted comment on "Out of Season": "I had omitted the real end of it which was that the old man hanged himself. This was omitted on my new theory that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story" (75). Blixen does not mention in the final pages of Out of Africa her thoughts of suicide, revealed in a letter discovered and widely discussed in Denmark in March 2015 (Politiken). Instead, she displaces her own despair and her death wish onto Kinanjui, the dying Kikuyu chief who, according to tribal customs, would be left above ground for hyenas and vultures to devour: "I thought it would be a pleasant thing to be laid out to the sun and the stars, and to be so promptly, neatly, and openly picked and cleansed; to be made one with Nature and become a common component of the landscape." Her thoughts revolve around death: "At the time we had the Spanish flu on the farm. I heard the hyenas round the shambas all night, and often, after those days, I would find a brown smooth skull in the long grass in the forest, like a nut dropped down under a tree, or on the plain" (291). Hemingway also signals death with vultures and hyenas in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," where they foreshadow the demise of Hemingway's writer and hunter protagonist.

Both Blixen and Hemingway describe African landscapes as paintings. Late in life, Blixen wrote an introduction to four charcoal drawings from her time at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, where she was enrolled in the women's division in 1903, which stresses the importance of painting in her literary work (Lasson, [Drawings] 26). Like Hemingway, Blixen had learned much from Paris, where she also spent part of her youth and roamed the Musee du Luxembourg. In her essay, Blixen writes that "Paris went completely to my head; it was the most wonderful world that opened in front of my eyes. It was as if I were told that my role here was to receive and abandon myself freely to all its marvels,--and thus also to the ecstasy of what humanity through centuries had created in the art of painting" (23). But the two young people did not share the same privileges. As Frans Lasson writes in his work on Karen Blixen's visual art, "[i]t was, after all, at the beginning of the [twentieth] century, when a womans education still was not emphasized. Impatiently, Tanne [Karen] had shoved painting and writing aside and married Bror Blixen instead" (16). But she had studied Cezanne carefully and had learned from his paintings the "something," as Hemingway puts it in A Moveable Feast, "that made writing simple true sentences far from enough to make the stories have the dimensions that I was trying to put in them" (13). At Rungstedlund, where she took up residence after Africa, visitors to what is now the Karen Blixen museum may admire a still life of a mounted owl, an old Swedish vase, and a chessboard decorated with lemons. She painted it on her farm in Africa, the dry and burned colors of Ngong Hills the source of her inspiration. She had asked her brother, Thomas Dinesen, what he thought of it, and he had praised it but also mentioned that the reddish color of one of the lemons was not particularly lemon-like. Blixen had thrown one of her fits and exclaimed that if no one understood her work, she had better stop. When her sorrows--shauries she called them--at the farm took over, she never again opened her easel, but she still drew flower arrangements and fashionable dresses and hats (Lasson, [Drawings] 16-17).

Blixen is also preoccupied with perspective, as she makes clear in her essay on drawing: "A new and beautiful side of the world revealed itself to me when I learned perspective drawing, which my friends considered pedantic compulsory labor. That it to me appeared quite differently may be due to the fact that I had never, in any daily schooling, met with strict rigor. I was in a peculiar way seduced by the immovably just and law-abiding nature of perspective drawing" (Lasson, [Drawings] 22). Blixen would write with perspective and color, suitable to her moods, in her letters and in Out of Africa. In the opening pages, her exuberance spreads across the East African landscape, with Ngong Hills prominent in the distance with "four noble peaks like immovable darker blue waves against the sky" (14). After her coffee farm has failed, she visits Finch-Hatton's property on the Creek of Takaungu, her untamable lover non-committal, her own heart heavy. Blixen's landscape description reflects her desire, incomprehension, and defeat in a painterly prose, with her Royal Academy studies of perspective prominently displayed:

The coast below the house had a row of scooped-out deep caves and grottoes, where you sat in shade and watched the distant glittering blue water. When the tide came in, it filled up the caves to the level of the ground on which the house was built, and in the porous coral-rock the sea sang and sighed in the strangest way, as if the ground under your feet were alive; the long waves came up Takaunga [sic] Creek like a storming army. (Out of Africa 295-96)

Blixen writes in her essay on drawing that she often needs the key of a great painter to open up a landscape and show her its features and special beauty. But Africa required no such mediation because she herself held the brush there: "Only the African highlands have spoken to me immediately, without an interpreter, in a language that went straight to my heart. There must have been an original, mythic understanding between them and myself, for at our first meeting I took possession of the land, or the land took possession of me, and we became one" (Lasson, [Drawings] 28).

Hemingway had also learned from Cezanne and the other masters of painting, but in A Moveable Feast, he claimed he "was not articulate enough to explain it to anyone." "Besides," he continues, "it was a secret" (13). Scholars like Theodore L. Gaillard Jr. have nonetheless probed into his secret. In "Hemingway's Debt to Cezanne," Gaillard mentions among other techniques "effective shifts in perspective and narrative point of view to blurred framings of tight focal points; from the blank-canvas power of the implied but unspoken to meticulous placement of emotionally colored words and images; from the telling detail of clothing or expression in a 'portrait' to the repetition of symbolic vertical and horizontal planes in indoor and outdoor settings" (67). In "Hemingway and Cezanne," Kenneth G. Johnston reads "Big Two-Hearted River" through the lens of a Cezanne landscape, while Gaillard also includes in his analysis the shifting Cezanne perspectives in "Tire Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber." First Hemingway introduces the lion from Francis Macombers viewpoint: "Macomber saw the lion now. He was standing almost broadside, his great head up and turned toward them." Then the perspective shifts, so that the lion watches the car Macomber has just left: "he saw a man figure detach itself from it and he turned his heavy head and swung away toward the cover of the trees ..." (SS 15). Similarly mirrored perspectives occur at the end so as to establish Margot Macomber's guilt. First Hemingway presents the targeted buffalo through Francis's rifle sight, and then Margot shoots with her Mannlicher "about two inches up and a little to one side at the base of his skull" (SS 36). As Gaillard concludes, "this perspective shift reveals, as if though a rifle scopes crosshairs, an aim even more precise than when Francis had put the wounded bull out of its misery" (71). The shift in perspective also reveals Hemingway's debt to Cezanne.

In August 1918, young Blixen describes Naivasha, where she and Bror were happiest together, as a painting of Eden. Not only has she access to water, but there are also millions of ducks, geese, herons, flamingos, egrets and other birds, as in the Land of Plenty. To her, Naivasha is "one of the most marvelous places on earth; the fine brown nuances in the grass and the plains,--ochre, terracotta, sepia, terra de Siena,--and then the blue, dear, always changeable lake and the air blue,--bleu horizon,--mountains and hills behind it--it is like a fine old painting." She writes, in a characteristic gesture of projection, that the Somali servants she has brought along "are completely in Paradise" (Blixen, [Letters 1914-24] 119). In the early pages of Out of Africa, the author, the landscape, the natives, and the wild animals also merge in a mysterious unity (Wivel 65). Blixen writes about the African highlands: "the chief feature of the landscape, and of your life in it, was the air.... Up in this high air you breathed easily, drawing in vital assurance and lightness of heart. In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be" (Out of Africa 14). Hemingway also finds in Africa a second chance at Paradise, "a fresh, green breast of a new world," as Fitzgerald wrote (187). At the end of Green Hills of Africa, Hemingway locates a New America on African ground:
   Our people went to America because it was the place to go then. It
   had been a good country and we had made a bloody mess of it and I
   would go, now, somewhere else as we had always had the right to go
   somewhere else and as we had always gone.... I knew a good country
   when I saw one. Here there was game, plenty of birds, and I liked
   the natives. Here I could shoot and fish. That, and writing, and
   reading, and seeing pictures was all I cared about doing. (201)

Both Blixen and Hemingway find themselves in the African landscape, where they reinvent identities worn thin. Blixen's attraction to a foreign continent originated, as Ole Wivel notes, in the bourgeois culture of her family and friends in Denmark, whose concept of happiness seemed to her trivial and whose lifestyle she found restrictive and boring (18). In Africa, she located a truer self. After the trip to Kijabe and three months on the Masai Reserve, famously included in Out of Africa, she says: "The air was cold to the lungs, the long grass dripping wet, and the herbs on it gave out their spiced astringent scent. In a little while on all sides the cicadas would begin to sing. The grass was me, and the air, the distant invisible mountains were me, the tired oxen were me. I breathed with the slight night-wind in the thorn trees" (233). As Judith Thurman points out, this passage is poetically condensed from real events and suggests the artist at work on herself, through the land (146). Hemingway's reasons for going included his fatigue with Winner Take Nothing reviews, including Clifton Fadiman's in The New Yorker, which called for materials Hemingway had not already developed to the point of saturation. Baker notes that when Hemingway reached Paris in the late fall of 1933, he had already begun to speak of this beautiful city in the past tense. On their last night in Paris before Africa, the Hemingways dined with James Joyce, who feared his writing was "too suburban and that maybe he should get around a bit and see the world." Hemingway could not stand the belief that "fragile old Papa was slipping" and decided "to study what interested him and to have a damned good time doing it" (Baker, Life Story 247). It was time to start over.

For Blixen and Hemingway, the Africans populated a pre-historic landscape, where European and American sins had yet to arrive. Blixen's sojourn among the Masai provoked the British colony in Nairobi, usually not given to moral outrage. Blixen did not care. She saw the Africans as representatives of wisdom, sincerity, and community, but first and foremost as messengers from a pre-cultural original state of life and mind: "They came into my life," she writes in Essays, "as some sort of response to a call in my own nature ... or to feelings and instincts deep down in my mind ..." (12). Blixen never gave up calling the Africans "her" natives, though this habit made people uncomfortable, at least as the decades passed. In introducing two paintings of Africans, she elaborates on their pre-historic quality: "The natives in the East African highlands were wonderful models.... They expressed in color, lines and movement a perfect unity and harmony. The inner nature and soul of Africa had here, through millennia, created for itself a human form, as clear and truthful in style as that of the lion or the leopard" (Lasson, [Drawings] 32). Much could be made of this quotation and "her" natives in Out of Africa, and much has, in fact, been made. Thurman writes about the complicated relationship between Blixen and the Africans: "There was something of a lonely child playing with a doll in all her relations with the Africans: the extreme tenderness, the maternal solicitude, the sense of power and responsibility that distracted her from her own feelings of helplessness and despair" (269). Other critics and commentators condemn both writers as colonials or racists. Though Blixen knew the names of Kikuyus and Masais--Kamante, Saufe, Kitau--Africans became "her" natives. In what Marie Louise Pratt calls a "contact zone" (4), Blixen inhabits the space of the imperialist, whose gaze aims at control. The natives turn up in anonymous plurals and often remain invisible, their work linguistically absent from Blixens script, as when she describes the troubles of a coffee farmer:

you carry the boxes of your shining young coffee plants from the nurseries, and, with the whole number of farm-hands in the field, watch the plants set in regular rows of holes in the wet ground where they are to grow, and then have them thickly shaded against the sun, with branches broken from the bush, since obscurity is the privilege of young things.... I had six hundred acres of the land with coffee; my oxen dragged the cultivators up and down the fields, between the rows of trees, many thousand miles, patiently, awaiting coming bounties. (Out of Africa 16-17)

In this passage, and innumerable others, the natives on her land become anonymous field hands, defined by their function in her coffee fields, where their work is absent, either because she "watch [es] the plants set" or has them shaded by an invisible work force. The drivers of the oxen have disappeared, as Blixen focuses on her cattle, apparently struggling on their own. Her panoramic gaze across the fields suggests the position Pratt associates with colonial and cultural dominance. Blixen withholds from the natives a linguistic presence also by having them merge with the landscape: "The Natives were Africa in flesh and blood. The tall extinct volcano of Longonot that rises above the Rift Valley, the broad mimosa trees along the rivers, the elephant and the giraffe, were not more truly Africa than the natives were--small figures in an immense scenery" (28).

The discussion of Blixen and colonialism is ongoing. In a 2009 article, Lasse Horne Kjaeldgaard analyzes the reception of Blixens African texts by juxtaposing the Danish view of her as a "fashionable national icon" (114) with the Kenyan hostility towards this icon. Kjaeldgaard represents this African reception especially with Dominick Odipo, who places Blixen high up on his list of racist and dangerous foreigners in Africa. Odipo and others find Blixen complicit with the British colonial powers, which she supposedly "blessed and upheld" with her literary works (Kjaeldgaard 115). Kjaeldgaard recommends, from a postcolonial critical perspective, a more nuanced reading and concludes that Blixen in Out of Africa simultaneously witnesses, participates in, and critiques the "colonial project" (135). Marianne T. Stecher seeks to add nuance to Blixen's interaction with the native population in Kenya. Supplementing the discussion with Blixens little-known essay "Sorte og Hvide i Afrika" [Blacks and Whites in Africa]" (1938), which Stecher includes in a translated version as an appendix, she notes that the essay "does not engage fully in the complex narrative strategies or double-voiced discourse of the literary masterpiece Out of Africa, which both colludes with and subverts colonialist discourse" (202). Stecher finds, nonetheless, that Blixens shorter text "shares with Out of Africa the overriding ideal of mutual reciprocity in the meeting between 'the two races,' a meeting Blixen describes as having occurred in a rare and irretrievable moment in history..(202). Sten Pultz Moslund locates in Out of Africa a "hereness" (147) in Blixens landscapes, with instances of her merging with Africa and Africans, as in the passage quoted above where "the grass was me, and the air, the distant invisible mountains were me, the tired oxen were me" (233). Moslund sees in these lines "an Othering that de-subjectifies, even de-anthropomorphizes the self, turning it into vegetation and animal and a mode-of-being that is fundamentally produced by Otherness." In Moslund's analysis, "Blixen confronts Eurocentric hierarchies of identity ... by creating connections between becoming-Africa, becoming-other, and becoming-human." Her encounter with Africans accordingly turns into "a 'human-human' relation, of being human before being a self or having an identity" (148). Overall, European and American responses to Blixen in Africa stress nuance and complexity, while African readers emphasize colonial blindness and sovereignty.

Hemingway's rhetorical habits and personal practices relating to Africans have also been scrutinized. Erik G. R. Nakjavani writes in "Africa as Necessary, Ancestral Place" that in Green Hills of Africa, the narrator's imagination "intimates to him the privileged but unimaginable original landscape of the world that precedes the dawn of human consciousness" (279). Like Blixen, the Hemingway persona in Green Hills believes he moves in pre-historic terrain. And also like Blixen, he does not--with the exception of his friend M'Cola--give natives distinctive identities. His colonial gaze saw them in groups, sometimes invisible on the land, unlike the lions, leopards, and kudus he coveted, or Pop, his wife P.O.M, his rival Karl, or big Bwana himself. Both writers have a penchant for panoramic visions, where Africans disappear and colonials control, but Hemingway learned some things that Blixen might not have learned. In Under Kilimanjaro, the full version of his journals from the 1953-1954 safari, Hemingway's rhetoric about gun-bearers has changed. He writes in chapter 1: "Twenty years ago I had called them boys too and neither they nor I had any thought that I had no right to. Now no one would have minded if I had used the word. But the way things were now you did not do it. Everyone had his duties and everyone had a name. Not to know a name was both impolite and a sign of sloppiness" (8).

Both writers depict Africa as a landscape of action, a space where the Blixen and Hemingway heroes exhibit their courage in facing death or reckon with their own death drives. Both gave inordinate energy to the shooting of lions, as taught by Bror Blixen or Pop Percival. The Baroness had a fondness for lions. On her first safari with Bror, she saw servants flay one, as Thurman relates in her Karen Blixen biography. The fascinated bride watched skinners peel back the blood-stained golden skin, noting his muscles "did not have 'a particle of superfluous fat'; he was arrogantly perfect in his death, elegant to the bone, all through what [he] ought to be.'" "That economy," Thurman continues, "was a quality she would strive for in her own works of art, her own figure, and her fate" (144). Wivel elaborates in Karen Blixen:
   In letters both to her mother and to her Aunt Bess, Karen Blixen
   finds her identity as a "lion hunter," i. e. as the one who
   measures up to the greatest challenges and says yes to her destiny.
   In a letter from June 1928, she recounts the fabulous night when
   she and Denys shot two lions by torch light and returned to a
   bottle of champagne, perfectly happy--and explains to Aunt Bess the
   source of this happiness: "Of course, I do not believe, now, that
   it is a very great sacrifice to refrain from shooting lions ... But
   the lions here mean or represent something, and as I am thinking
   about it, I seem to reach the insight that a real choice is at
   stake here ... the lions or family life." (82)

Wivel notes: "The price for this insight was high" (82). It led Blixen to despair and nostalgia, and her much-noted posturing, the mask of bravery that she constantly wore. Almost three decades after she left Africa, Blixen still thought and wrote about the lions she shot in Africa and the price she had paid, if not the price the lions had paid. She was, from the time an African servant had sent her a letter addressed to Lioness Blixen, the Lioness as well as the Baroness (Shadows on the Grass 7). She had courageously embraced her destiny and become what she ought to become, at least in between bouts of melancholy. She had survived the death of her lover, who now played his part in her legacy of heroism. The lions came to Finch-Hatton's grave in the hills and made him "an African monument," at one with the landscape and forever hers (Out of Africa 308).

Hemingway also knew about lions and about grace under pressure. Like Blixen, he knew Nairobi, a British colony back then, and the Muthaiga Club, where the men had famously toasted Blixen upon her final departure for Europe. Like the lion, Hemingway was good at "conspicuous masculinity" (Thurman 109). In The Best Times (1968), John Dos Passos remembers him in Key West days as "the famous author, the great sportsfisherman, the mighty African hunter," though he and his wife Katy tried to keep their friend "kidded down to size." Dos Passos confesses: "We played up to him some at that." When the famous author and host retired early, "we'd all bring him drinks and eat our supper on trays around the bedroom. We called it the lit royale" (219). The head of a huge lion from Hemingway's second African safari enters the frame on the cover of Hemingway and Women: Female Critics and the Female Voice (2002), which shows a harmonious Mary and Ernest back home in Cuba after their 1953-1954 safari, with Papa towering over the fourth Mrs. Hemingway His look of benign patriarchal affection meets her adoring gaze. Behind them, a symbol of roaring masculinity, the black-maned lion killed during their safari, indicates masculine prowess in the bedroom and on the savannah.

The lion also suggests darker bodies of both genders. For one thing, Hemingway tried to go native during this second safari in Africa. In True at First Light (1999), the Great White Hunter fantasizes about blackness:
   Walking in the early morning watching Ngui striding lightly through
   the grass thinking how we were brothers it seemed to me stupid to
   be white in Africa and I remembered how twenty years before I had
   been taken to hear the Moslem missionary who had explained to us,
   his audience, the advantages of a dark skin and the disadvantages
   of the white mans pigmentation. I was burned dark enough to pass as
   a half-caste. ([201]).

As Suzanne del Gizzo notes in "Going Home: Hemingway, Primitivism, and Identity," Hemingway flirts with racechange, claiming that he and Mary are "'not white,' but once he 'goes native,' he makes every attempt to disassociate himself from his identity as a 'White Man,' physically as well as socially and politically" (514). Del Gizzo emphasizes, however, that Hemingway's "posture toward Africa--its use as a backdrop for his explorations of self--is more a product of Hemingway's ego and personality than a conscious acceptance of imperial policy" (521). Chikako Tanimoto agrees that we must "be at least a little sceptical of the attempts in Hemingway's texts to reach outside the normative heterosexual Western culture through African identifications and 'tribal' performances. The desire of characters to be 'Africanized' does not necessarily mean that they have any deep understanding of, or even interest in, the political reality of the African people" (209). Hemingway's fiancee, Debba, contributes to his tribal fantasy and to critical discussions. Fond of putting her hand on his gun holster, she helps the Hemingway persona through his mid-life crisis and the long days and nights in the camp. But, del Gizzo argues, Hemingway's engagement with this Kamba girl comes across as "stunningly problematic and raises questions about his sincerity, not to mention his morality." Throughout True at First Light, she writes in "Going Home," Hemingway knows that he will leave Africa, that "it is ultimately a 'vacation' that will end ..."(522).

Blixen would not have appreciated Hemingway's tribal and sexual fantasies, though she was famously direct and would call her old illness "syphilis" without blinking. In accordance with her silences, she never referred to "things of the night," despite Denys, and despite the young male admirers who would frequent Rungstedlund in the decades after her return to Denmark. The lions in her works would do the talking, or the roaring, as an anti-bourgeois symbol, though a complicated one. But Blixen had tried to go native herself. In discussing her drawings, she mentions that her "unusually good eyes" gave her an advantage when on safari with Africans, who would ask her advice about distant prey, hunter to hunter. She also proudly tells us that the natives gave her the name "she who first of all people sees the new moon," later abbreviated to the nickname "New Moon." "Can anyone wish for a more beautiful name, or,--among Muslims--, higher?" she asks (Lasson, [Drawings] 28). At the end of her African sojourn, her emaciated body suggested identification with those around her. Clara Svendsen writes about a photograph depicting Blixen with two African men in pantaloons and smocks: "While the early pictures show a well-nourished European in comparison with the gaunt Africans, sickness and worry have here facilitated considerable assimilation" ([A Writer's Destiny in Pictures] 130). Thurman notes that strangers would at the end of her time in Africa find her kali, a Swahili word "usually applied to wild animals, especially cats, to describe their ferocity and caprice." She further writes that Blixen became so thin that she scared children, like a witch (Thurman 269). In a sense, she had become the Other.

In Hemingway and Women, Susan F. Beegel revises critic Philip Youngs famous question, "what makes a man a man?" She asks instead: "[W]hat makes a man a woman? what makes a woman a woman? what makes a woman a man? what makes men and women heterosexual? homosexual? bisexual? Where are the boundaries of gender? And what importance does gender have in our make-up?" (Broer and Holland x). The Hemingway and Women cover photo from the Finca gives a few responses to Beegel's many questions. Readers of Hemingway's African journals, whether True at First Light or Under Kilimanjaro, will recognize the trophy on the wall between the two Hemingways as "Miss Mary's lion," first shot by Mary and then by Ernest. It is an ambiguous symbol of prowess and courage, since these masculine traits reside in both the male and the female Hemingway photographed. In fact, husband and wife have similar haircuts and wear similar clothes, white shirts and all. Also the nubile Debba invades the marital scene through the lion by invoking an African presence. Carl Eby first wrote the Hemingway hero into more transgressive sexual territory, where "el nuevo Hemingway" resides. In their introduction to Hemingway and Women, Lawrence Broer and Gloria Holland explain that this new Hemingway is "a writer whose androgynous impulses not only contradict the machismo Hemingway of myth but also whose complex female protagonists and problematic treatment of gender relationships demand a reevaluation of Hemingway's entire literary output" (ix-x).

Blixen knew about gender trouble herself. Thurman links hunting to sex in the passage on the safari with Bror, where the newly-wed European woman was "quite unprepared for her own blood lust." Thurman continues: "A week into the safari, drunk with it, she offered her apologies to all hunters for any prior skepticism toward their ecstasy'" (143). But in watching her first lion skinned, her gaze suggests bisexuality. She identifies with the lion while simultaneously admiring its masculinity, its hardness, and its muscles. Thomas Dinesen reveals in Tanne, the family name for Karen Blixen, her gender confusion. On the one hand, his sister is the Lioness: She has fought nobly for her marriage to Bror, and for her African farm, with a lion's strength and determination. On the other, she is a phallic woman. In a letter to Thomas written 8 Januaryl919, she joyfully describes shooting a furious, grunting lion, charging at her "straight as a cannon ball" ([Letters 1924-31] 133). In fact, Blixen becomes a soldier figure, fighting her war and winning her prize, like her father before her.

In the wilder parts of the Rungstedlund grounds, Wilhelm Dinesen had shared with his favorite daughter the secrets of hunting, nature, and wild living. It had been freedom from the wilderness surrounding maternal complacency and conventionality inside that she later sought in Africa. A veteran of the Dano- and French-Prussian wars, Dinesen had in the early 1870s lived in America with Native American tribes and written up his experiences in Letters from the Hunt by Boganis, the name the Chippewa gave him. Some silences in Blixens works might originate in the syphilis he brought back from his American sojourn, or his mysterious suicide, when she was ten (Dinesen 13; Wivel 29-30). On 21 March 2015, Danish newspapers carried the just-discovered story behind his act: Anna Rasmussen, a young maid working for Wilhelm Dinesen's mother-in-law, was six months pregnant with his child (Ritzau). The suicide of Blixens father accounts for much of his famous daughter's melancholy and inspired as well the gender fluidity now associated with Blixen. He haunts her study in the North Wing of Rungstedlund, where a masculine atmosphere prevails. Pale green walls set off the dark furniture, such as Wilhelm Dinesen's mahogany desk, the Isak Dinesen pseudonym erasing the gender difference between father and daughter, with an ironic twist: Isak means laughter. Other pieces of furniture evoke the absent father: his book chest, his collected works, the photograph of him in a hunting outfit above his gun chest, behind Blixens favorite chair. Steen Eiler Rasmussen, a longtime friend and admirer, compares the Wilhelm Dinesen photograph to one from the African farm, in which the daughter has turned into the father: Blixen in a riding suit stands with gun and dog at her side (Rasmussen 36-37). In analyzing Beryl Markham's West with the Night, del Gizzo writes that Markham's "use of a hunting trip in Africa as a space to flout gender conventions and expectations likely appealed to Hemingway" ("Tracking" 183). It also appealed to Blixen. Many years later, Niels Carlsen, who grew up at Rungstedlund with his single mother, the cook, called Karen Blixen his father (Mandal and von Lowzows).

In a letter to her honeymooning brother, Thomas, dated 25 August 1926, Blixen theorizes about modern love as "homosexuality," understood, as she explains, "as homogenous,--which more takes the form of a passionate sympathy, a community of love of ideas or ideals, than a personal interest in and surrendering to one another ..." ([Letters 1925-31] 56). This "homosexual" view of love owes much to Denys Finch-Hatton, who backed away from traditional marriage or relationships and may himself have been bior homosexual. Wivel links her view of marriage and destiny to Denys, who refused paternal responsibilities in the famous telegram from London that either recommended abortion or single motherhood to Karen, who in 1926 believed she was miraculously pregnant and loved him. He excuses Denys, who was "both impeded by a dubious sexual identity and the relationship-free attitude Karen Blixen made her own over the following years" (80). Much could and has been made of Blixens homoeroticism. In his analyses of sexuality, gender, and identity in her works, Dag Heede queers the whole Blixen canon and argues that her characters constitute textual nomads who travel among sexualities and genders in infinite--and infinitely problematical and problematized--constellations (33).

In The Creative Dialectic of Karen Blixens Essays (2014), Marianne T. Stecher disagrees with Heede's arguments for Blixens performative sexualities. In a brilliant analysis of Blixens "Oration at a Bonfire," delivered in 1953 and translated into English in 1978, Stecher locates Blixens "entreaty to modern women to repossess todays spheres of male dominance ... with another mode of existence ..." (71). She does not label Blixens notions of "being over doing" as traditionalist, but finds in the "Bonfire" speech her most explicit and elaborate statement on womanliness and feminism: "the question of gender is fundamentally related to larger concerns dealing with art, imagination, and individuality, and feminist movements are depicted as a stage of development in women's evolving self-consciousness over the course of history" (75). So as to absorb and communicate the fullness of human existence, the artist needs, as Stecher reads Blixen, to activate both masculine and feminine principles, since "both life forces are necessary for the fully integrated persona" (64). In the course of her chapter, "On Feminism and Womanliness," which includes an analysis of "The Blank Page" as a celebration of female physicality and creativity, Stecher contributes importantly to the discussion of Blixens gender visions. Unlike Heede, she sees Blixen calling "for modern women to reject both imitation (male mimicry) and protest and to turn to the female experience as an autonomous source of art" (67). She links Blixen with New French Feminism, a precursor to an essentialist Helene Cixous asking women to write in white ink, with body fluids as modes of experience and communication. Other critics focus more literally on Blixen herself and speculate about her anorexia, with its fear of femininity and distrust of female forms, and her identification with Diana, not Venus. Bror Blixen complained about his new bride's hunger diets and her (ab)use of laxatives to stay slim (Arnold 122-23). All critics agree, however, on immersing Blixen in gender trouble, whether constructed, performative, essentialist, psychological, or physical.

Most gender troubled is the complicated scene with Thorkild Bjornvig, the young Danish poet who replaced Bror and Denys in the Blixen's affections. Invited for dinner in November 1952, after a prolonged silence, Bjornvig entered the dining room at Rungstedlund, where Blixen, dressed in a long evening gown, embraced him. She said in a voice of unusual and stifled emotion: "Sei mir gegrusst, sei mir gekusst [Oh, to be greeted--oh, to be kissed]" (Bjornvig 128). After a "wonderful" evening with much white wine, red wine and cognac, Blixen reportedly got up from the dining table and left the room without a word. She returned with a revolver, rested one hand on her high-backed chair and raised the other, with the revolver aimed at her guest. Bjornvig describes the situation as follows:
   I was not surprised at all, nothing could disturb my perfect
   happiness, I thought: everything is insolvable, and you can never
   be happier, so why not now, and rather now than later. She looked
   at me steadily and I at her, in some mutual and insane
   understanding. Then slowly she lowered her arm and again left
   through the door. She returned after a short while, sat down, and
   began conversing as if nothing had happened. (129)

The two never spoke of the scene again, but in his Danish-language monograph on Blixen and Bjornvig, Jorgen Stormgaard speculates on its meaning: "Was it a test administered by Karen Blixen, with which she wanted to try if Thorkild Bjornvig were sufficiently courageous to match her? Or must the incident be seen as a symbolic intercourse with Karen Blixen as the 'masculine,' aggressive party?" (80). It might as well have been the lion hunter embracing her destiny or the wounded lioness in action. It might have been the wounded writer in action, since she had not received the Nobel Prize the previous year. Blixen would later ascribe the pistol scene to destiny, or insanity.

Though Hemingway said publicly that Blixen had deserved the Nobel Prize, he gave his noble gesture a twist in a letter to Buck Lanham, his World War II buddy, written 10 November 1954:

You know I know more or less what category of writer I am but that's no reason to act swelled headed. Or tell anybody. And I learned a long time ago not to ever speak frankly or detached about it. Between us I was thinking like this: Sandburg is an old man and he will appreciate it. (He did.) Blickie's wife (Dinesen) is a damn sight better writer than any Swede they ever gave it to and Blickie (Baron Bror Von Blixen-Finecke) is in hell and he would be pleased if I spoke well of his wife. Berenson I thought deserved it (no more than me) but I would have been happy to see him get it. Or any of the three. That's the way your brain is working. (Baker, Letters 839)

Hemingway qualifies his admiration for Blixen by calling her as good as any Swedish prize winner, a big fish in a small pond. Hemingway felt he deserved the Nobel Prize more than Blixen, but he had learned not to act "swelled-headedly" and lifted her up a notch. Fortunately, she had not read the Lanham letter and enjoyed the attention.

In the Nobel Committee archives, Danish critic Aage Jorgensen has recently dug up the reasons why Blixen never received the prize--not in 1950, or 1954, or in any other year until her death in 1962, when she was spared another disappointment. The reasons include her slim output, with Out of Africa as most worthy of attention, her appeal to an American readership with a taste for luxury instead of a European one with a taste for aesthetics, Nordic writers appearing quite frequently on Academy lists, and one real enemy on the Nobel Prize committee (Jorgensen [183]-91). Despite private shauries, Blixen always took defeat well in public, though the 1957 rejection would be especially painful (Svendsen 124-27). So on 1 November 1954, she acknowledged Hemingway's gentlemanly gesture, which gave her, she wrote him, "at this moment as much heavenly pleasure,--even if not as much earthly benefit,--as would have done the Nobel Prize itself" (Lasson and Engelbrecht 253). Like Hemingway, she was a great performer and performed herself very elegantly.

Ernest Hemingway and Karen Blixen had much in common. They had read each other, Hemingway both Seven Gothic Tales and Out of Africa (Reynolds, Reading 117). They had both been touched by Africa, its landscape and its people. Not only did they move in the same circles in Kenya--most significantly with Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke, Blixens (ex-)husband and Hemingway's friend also in orbit--but their experiences in Africa would remain crucial to their literary imaginations. They both worked hard on their craft, with similar writing habits and passions. In Blixens Out of Africa and Hemingway's Green Hills of Africa and other Africa works, such as "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," True at First Light and Under Kilimanjaro, the writers draw on the paintings, especially by Cezanne, they had encountered early on in Paris and later developed fully to share their visions of Africa. Both found in Africa a temporary home and a space in which they might fulfill their cravings for freedom and adventure. Both saw the continent and its people with colonial eyes. However, Hemingway managed to revise his perspective while Blixens perspective stayed complicated. Africa remains, for both of them, an archaic setting where weary Westerners might recapture youth and harmony. Their activities there, hunting especially, spoke to deep-seated needs and desires in both writers. In their encounters with lions and big game in East Africa, Blixen and Hemingway troubled conventions of identity and gender, possibly inspired by their family histories, sexual identities, antibourgeois inclinations, or cultural restrictions. They were, differences aside, soulmates, as Blixen makes clear in the letter she sent to Hemingway after his Nobel compliments, which reads in part: "I have got much more to thank you for. Your books,--since I did first pick up by chance 'The Sun also Rises' at my bookseller's in Nairobi,--have meant a great deal to me. THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA was like a bathe or an embrace. It is a sad thing we have never met in the flesh." Below these lines, she wrote: "I send my gratitude and love" (Lasson and Engelbrecht 253).

Clara Juncker

University of Southern Denmark


(1.) Quotations from Danish texts not published in English have been translated by the author.

(2.) Translated from the Swedish text by the author.


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Author:Juncker, Clara
Publication:The Hemingway Review
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Mar 22, 2016
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