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National Identity Forged With a Pen

By Anne Kalosh / December 17, 1992

DENMARK has turned out two of the world's most-read authors, Hans Christian Andersen, whose fairy tales included "The Little Mermaid" and "The Ugly Duckling," and Karen Blixen, who wrote "Out Of Africa," "Seven Gothic Tales," and other books under the pen name Isak Dinesen. The Danes have been apologizing for them ever since.

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Although the Danish Tourist Board for years used the slogan, "We invented once upon a time," and promoted the Academy Awards successes of the film versions of Blixen's "Out of Africa" and "Babette's Feast," whenever the names Andersen and Blixen come up, Danes quickly trot out the excuses.

Lise Bostrup, the head of the Danish Literature Information Center, admits she is "wary" of using Andersen to promote contemporary Danish writing abroad because "he tends to give the wrong impression of Denmark."

Using the romantic fairy-tale writer to promote modern avante-garde works "underestimates the readers," she says.

Blixen, writes biographer Judith Thurman, felt like "an outsider in the Danish literary milieu, disliked and misunderstood." She is not represented in the anthology, "Denmark's Best Stories (An Introduction to Danish Fiction)." Like Andersen, Blixen was a voice outside the mainstream.

Although many Danes are uneasy about exalting the Blixen-Andersen duo, they never tried to silence their voices. I'm grateful for that. Like millions of Americans, I grew up reading Hans Christian Andersen. I knew him and Karen Blixen years before embarking on the first of dozens of trips to Denmark, a country I have grown to love. But it's not the pastoral landscape or the pleasures of Copenhagen that draw me back time and again; it's my fascination with the Danish character that I first glimpsed in tal es like "The Ugly Duckling" and "Copenhagen Season."

"We are just a little nation," countless Danes have told me. And despite this humility, they strive to preserve their uniqueness - as evidenced by the massive resistance movement during the Nazi occupation, and more recently by their vote rejecting the Maastricht Treaty and further absorption into the European Community.

The Danes have created a social system that values and cares for each individual, yet they maintain a respect for the centuries-old monarchy. I'm impressed that Danes celebrate individuality while cooperating for the common good - after a great deal of discussion and debate, of course. Both Andersen and Blixen exalted the individual.

In the last two years, museums devoted to the two writers opened in Denmark. Entrepreneur Jorgen Rossen contributed $9 million to establish the H. C. Andersen Cultural Center in a restored town house at Nyhavn, the canal quarter of Copenhagen where the 19th-century storyteller lived. Royalties from the 1985 Academy Award-winning film "Out of Africa" have enabled Blixen's estate to be opened to the public almost 30 years after her death.

While visiting the museums, I waited in long lines for tickets and witnessed a remarkable outpouring of interest and emotion. And I began to wonder if - like in the United States - the biggest crowds flock to the artists deemed most unacceptable by the establishment.

Andersen and Blixen lived in different centuries and were born into different social classes. Their themes and writing styles are at odds. However, not only did both profess to be storytellers at heart, but both were misunderstood, ignored, or despised by the literary critics of their eras.

Andersen, today one of the most widely read and translated writers of all time, was a poor boy with a hunger for fame. His early life was a struggle - first against poverty and ignorance, later for acceptance. Tall and lanky with an absurdly angular face, he was mocked in the street.

Editor Hanna Astrup Larsen has written that Andersen bucked tradition by ignoring the classics, drawing instead on "his own minute observations from the parlors and kitchens, the marketplaces and gutters of Copenhagen." Andersen's language, in Larsen's words, "was so oral in its quality that Copenhageners said `Of course you can talk like that, but - good heavens! - you can't write like that!' "