National Identity Forged With a Pen
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.
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!' "
Nevertheless, Andersen inspired Jens Peter Jacobsen, who became the great stylist of the next generation and widely imitated, leading Larsen to conclude, "The idea that Andersen was somehow an aberration simply isn't true."
HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN'S stories entered our consciousness as childish parables with themes durable enough to last through adulthood. The yearning of "The Little Mermaid," the absurdity of the crowd's blind allegiance in "The Emperor's New Clothes," and the eventual blossoming of the misfit "Ugly Duckling" are notions that pervade Danish cultural and political thought. But these and other Andersen tales are so universal that they are available today in 120 languages.
As for Blixen, at a time when Danish writers were rejecting romanticism and moving toward social realism, she was churning out Gothic tales of aristocratic intrigue in exotic settings. To countrymen engaged in the socialist movement, her ideas seemed hopelessly tangled in outmoded notions of class.
Blixen transformed the failure of her coffee farm in Africa into the triumph of a best-selling book that won even wider acclaim than the film, "Out of Africa." While Blixen's contemporaries were championing domestic social causes, she was composing pastoral prose extolling the virtues of African civilization and the Africans' intimacy with nature.
In "Sorrow Acre," quite possibly Blixen's masterpiece, she grapples with the conflict between the old order and the new - a recurring Blixen theme. In the story, a peasant woman tries to save her son from execution by reaping the field of a lord between sunrise and sunset - a task that would take the labor of four men. The episode is seen through the eyes of the aristocrat's repulsed nephew, who represents the new humanitarianism of his age.
To some, the piece defends the old way. But to me, it crystallizes the essence of Denmark today - a democratic, humanitarian society still wrestling with vestiges of the past.
While Blixen initially was panned by Danish critics, her bewitching personality made her a cult figure for a circle of young writers - men like Martin Hansen, Ole Wivel, and Thorkild Bjornvig, who would become important authors of their generation.
Andersen and Blixen, though out of step with their contemporaries, were undeniably original and clearly influential. Based on the response to the museums in their honor and the fact that they remain in print all over the world, it would seem that they have made a lasting mark.
Both, whether "typically Danish" or not, have contributed to the mingling of ideas that defines their culture. The intense interest in the museums devoted to these writers reveals that Danes feel a bond with those who have helped build their collective identity.
While strolling through the halls of the Andersen center and wandering the rooms of Blixen's manor house, I thought of how my own country treats its artists - particularly in an era when some politicians argue that public-funded art must meet a defined standard of artistic merit.
John Frohnmayer, the former head of the National Endowment for the Arts, told a gathering of newspaper editors in Washington that "the arts are fundamental to the democratic system because they demand involvement. Every child who has honestly written a poem or performed a song or dance has been forever changed. That child has made a covenant of honesty and risk - of communication and commitment to a community. That child has laid vulnerable a part of the self and has placed faith in the community to resp ond. That child has become a citizen."
Throughout history, many - perhaps even most - great writers initially were viewed with suspicion and misunderstanding. The Danes appear to be moving toward greater acceptance of them. The astonishing durability of this literary pair gives me hope that perhaps in the not-too-distant future, the apologies on their behalf will cease.
After being open less than a year, the H. C. Andersen House in Nyhavn recently was forced to close temporarily, due to lack of funding. Jorgen Rossen, who privately bankrolled the project, said he could no longer afford upkeep of the property, in spite of its popularity. At press time, the Danish Tourist Board was assisting in a search to find investors for the house.