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  • Culture, Cultivation, and Colonialism in Out of Africa and Beyond
  • Simon Lewis (bio)

In an essay written in 1991 entitled “Consuming Isak Dinesen,” Susan Hardy Aiken points out that following the filming of Out of Africa and Babette’s Feast, “‘Isak Dinesen’ had once again become a pop icon, the subject of fascinated speculation, fashionable imitation, and culinary fabrication” (3). Indeed, since Meryl Streep and Robert Redford first introduced Karen Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton to a mass audience, Out of Africa has been put to any number of commercial uses as part of a wave of reactionary nostalgia in Western popular culture. The ease with which Blixen’s work has been thus coopted seems to confirm the complicity of the “pro-native” Blixen’s representation of her African farm with hegemonic discourse. Indeed, one of the consequences of the commercial success of Out of Africa has been to facilitate dismissal of Blixen by reading her work backwards, as it were, through the filmmakers’ glossing, and turning her books into “mere supplements to capitalist technology” (Aiken 4).

Ngugi wa Thiong’o, whose depictions of the Kenyan landscape and the struggles over it contrast sharply with Blixen’s, reads any connection between the exploitation in and of Blixen’s work not backwards but forwards, seeing a “continuity” between Blixen’s Africa and postcolonial Kenya (Moving the Centre xiii), and Blixen herself as “embod[ying] the great racist myth at the heart of the Western bourgeois civilization” (135). 1 While such dismissive readings, in Aiken’s view, overlook a number of complicating factors, including Blixen’s role as a woman in colonial society, 2 I nevertheless propose to explore in more precise terms Ngugi’s allegation of racist continuity between the colonial and postcolonial, initially through an analysis of Out of Africa in terms of the European tradition of pastoral, and then through an examination of the wider questions posed by that analysis concerning the occupation and commodification of tracts of African land, both in Kenya and South Africa. Answers to these latter questions provide ways to demonstrate the persistence long into the postcolonial era of certain colonial attitudes to culture, cultivation, and conservation, a persistence that in part explains the connection between Blixen’s writerly exploitation of Africa and Africans, and her exploitability as a medium for those interested in selling exotic colonial chic to a Western audience still hungry for the safari image of Africa.

Let us start where Blixen starts, with the farm which she had. The opening sentence of Out of Africa establishes her having (or having had) the farm as the point of departure for the whole book, without any history of prior possession, without any reference to negotiation or purchase, and without the slightest hint that settlers’ rights to their farms might have been “secured by murder and sustained by extortion” (Ward 51). 3 Having the farm, according to Blixen’s formulation, a formulation faithfully repeated in the movie with Meryl Streep’s beautifully nuanced voice-over, at once [End Page 63] proud and regretful, naturalizes Blixen’s presence in Africa; she had a farm the same way one might have brown hair or a bad temper, a particular experience or disease. Her having the farm is no more a political act than Old MacDonald’s having of his farm in the nursery song.

The comparison with Old MacDonald may appear trivial, but the apparent innocence of both texts depends on and promotes the assumption that it is part of the natural order of things for individuals to have farms. Moreover, in the same way that the nursery song identifies for children a certain knowledge of various farm animals and what they say, Blixen’s work provides a certain knowledge of Africa and what it says, while the limited articulacy of farm animals matches the limited articulation ascribed to Africans. However, while the song implies the more or less autonomous type of farm that we might call a smallholding with its mix of stereotypical farm animals all oinking, quacking, mooing, and producing directly for Old MacDonald, Blixen’s 6,000-acre plantation, requiring intensive labor to produce coffee for export and encompassing the space of some...