Out of Africa | Critical Review by Katherine Woods

This literature criticism consists of approximately 5 pages of analysis & critique of Out of Africa.
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Critical Review by Katherine Woods

SOURCE: "Isak Dinesen's Fine Record of Life on an African Farm," in The New York Times Book Review, March 6, 1938, p. 3.

In the following review, Woods enthusiastically praises Out of Africa.

The book [Out of Africa] which Isak Dinesen has made from her life on an African farm is a surprising piece of writing to come from the author of Seven Gothic Tales. After dazzling the public with what Dorothy Canfield called "the strange slanting beauty and controlled fantasy" of the first book, this amazing Danish master of English prose has stepped now into the clearest reality, the utmost classic simplicity, the most direct—yet the most exquisitely restrained—truth. But it is an incandescent simplicity; the reality is of the spirit as well as of object and event; the truth is a cry from the heart. And after all the books that we have had out of Africa, I think this is the one we have been waiting for.

Like the Ngong hills—"which are amongst the most beautiful in the world"—this writing is without redundancies, bared to its lines of strength and beauty. "There was no fat on it, and no luxuriance anywhere," she says of her African landscape; so in the book there is no sentimentality, no elaboration. It is an autobiographical book: in one sense, only partly an autobiography; in another sense, doubly autobiographical. This is not a chronological record; and until close to the end it touches almost casually the course of the author's life. It is peopled with other characters, every one of them alive. And the author knows how the hills look just before the rains come; and how the bleak wind runs over the land and the scents and colors die when the rains fail; and how often the bright air will bring illusion, as if one were walking on the bottom of the sea. She can make a sudden parable of the resignation of the oxen, and understand the tragedy of the captured giraffes, so proud and innocent; and the ancient African forest, she says, is like an old tapestry. She knows the practical details, the hard work, of this farm life, too.

But before one has read many pages in her book one realizes how, in a deeper sense than that of mere chronicle, these clear objective details from a farm in Kenya are themselves wholly personal. Once, looking back on an evening errand in wartime in the Masai Reserve, she shows the reason:

The plains with the thorntrees on them were already quite dark, but the air was filled with clarity—and over our heads, to the west, a single star which was to grow big and radiant in the course of the night was now just visible, like a silver point in the sky of citrine topaz. 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 the sides the cicada 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 wind in the thorntrees.

This is more than mere understanding. And Africa lives through all this beautiful and heart-stirring book because of that simple and unsought-for fusion of the spirit, lying behind the skill which can put the sense of Africa's being into clear, right, simple words, through the things and people of the farm.

The farm was a coffee plantation, but much of it was grass land and part was primeval forest, and native squatters lived, by law and custom, on 1,000 of its 6,000 acres and had their own gardens and herds there. Across the river was the country of the Masai, a proud people who had been great fighters but were now a dying race. Hunting country was roundabout, and two missions were a few miles away (in opposite directions), and it was not a long drive to Nairobi, even in the early days by cart. Other Europeans came and went, and some lived in these same hills. That complex scene, that unpredictable cast of characters, of the European colony in Africa, can be found in this book. But Baroness Blixen (not yet known under her penname of Isak Dinesen) was very close to the native peoples and to all the immemorial life of the African wild. It was not easy to get to know the natives, she says: they understood her better than she understood them; but she felt a great affection for them, from the first.

She used to doctor them, from her simple knowledge. She had an evening school for them, with a native schoolmaster. She studied their language, and told them stories to which they loved to listen. They came to her—even the Masai across the river—to complain when a lion was taking their cows, and she would go out and shoot it; one night she and Denys Finch-Hatton shot two of these marauding lions, and the children came out from their school near by and sang a little song of triumph, which ended "in an intoxicated refrain, 'A-B-C-D,' because they came straight from the school and had their heads filled with wisdom." And the little herd-boys brought their sheep to graze on her lawns. She was the friend of the Kikuyu chief, and he sent for her to come to him when he was dying. And once when a serious dispute among the Kikuyu on the farm had gone beyond the power of her peace-making, she asked the chief to render judgment for her on the important matter of cows and witchcraft; for she was a sort of judge among them, too; the Elders held their council meetings before her house, and used to ask her for final decisions.

So, as the years went by, she came to know them: their justice which is so different from the white man's justice; their untroubled acceptance of life's uncertainties which is so different from the white man's shrinking from risk; their courage, which is "unadulterated liking for danger"; their strange dancing imagination, and their stillness and their hardness and their mocking mirth; the way, too, in which they could be "unreliable and yet in the grand manner sincere." And she came to know how the African natives will make of some certain European, for some certain reason, a symbol—a brass serpent lifted up in the wilderness—and even to see that she had become such a symbol, herself. In these and other ways she knew the African peoples among whom she lived, and whose friend she was. And unforgettably, through her book, she draws the portraits, and tells or suggests the stories of individuals—natives, Europeans, animals.

In this personal record out of Africa, so sincere and natural, so direct and clear, there is that penetration, restraint, simplicity and precision which, together, mark the highly civilized mind, and that compassion, courage and dignity which mark civilization, in the best sense, in the human heart. This writing is poignant and exquisite, it has an echoing reticence, it is swift in profundity or insight or tenderness or irony. And no description of this book, highly as it may praise its solid substance, can in itself do justice to its effortless, expressive, wholly individual beauty of form, or even list the evocations and suggestions that lie within, or are touched by, its very simplicity. Out of Africa is something rare and lovely, to read again and again.

At the last, it tears the heart with its disaster and its simple gallantry. Isak Dinesen had planted her own deep roots in this soil, long years before. And the roots were broken at last. She had to sell the farm, and leave Africa. After tedious effort she was able to assure her villages being kept together, when she had gone. But the farm was lost and divided. She tells the story with quiet and noble beauty. And one knows that her wish for life as a whole has been fulfilled by Africa: she did not let it go until it blessed her.

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This section contains 1,351 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Katherine Woods