Gottfried Keller

The Swiss short-story writer, novelist, and poet Gottfried Keller (1819-1890) was a master of the realistic novella and author of one of the outstanding German novels of his age.

Gottfried Keller was born in Zurich on July 19, 1819, and grew up in great poverty. He managed to go to Munich to study painting, but after 2 fruitless years his insufficient talent drove him home (1842), disillusioned and distraught.

Keller's life was marked by aimlessness and general inactivity, except for the publication of Gedichten (1846), a volume of poetry, until a government grant in 1848 permitted study at Heidelberg. There he met the atheistic philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach and the literary historian Hermann Hettner, who showed him where his real talents lay. Both greatly influenced his work.

During a 5-year stay in Berlin (1850-1855), Keller began writing in earnest. Neuere Gedichte, a second volume of poems, displayed notable lyric talent. Der grüne Heinrich (1854-1855; revised 1880), a Bildungs-roman (educational novel) like Goethe's Wilhelm Meister, is largely autobiographical, depicting the frustrations of a would-be artist. The work is regarded as one of the greatest German novels of the century.

In a series of stories called Die Leute von Seldwyla (1856), Keller's deep warmth and kindly humor manifest themselves as he points up the little failings of fictitious fellow Swiss with amiable indulgence and probing insight. The series contains Romeo und Julia auf dem Dorfe, a tragic story of two lovers thwarted by an unfriendly world, and is one of his finest narratives. Frederick Delius based an opera, The Village Romeo and Juliet (1907), on the story.

After returning to Zurich, Keller curtailed his writing, devoting his time to important duties as first secretary of the canton, an appointment he held until retirement (1876). His next work was Sieben Legenden (1872), a series of medieval legends told with disarming charm and simplicity. Its success established Keller's reputation. Five more stories in the Seldwyla series appeared in 1874, among them Kleider machen Leute, one of his best-known and best-loved tales.

The Züricher Novellen (1878), dealing with actual personalities from Zurich's past, again exhibits Keller's interest in the realistic portrayal of wholesome personality development. The cycle contains two of his finest stories: Der Landvogt von Greifensee and Das Fähnlein der sieben Aufrechten. Das Sinngedicht (1881) is a series of tales humorously describing a young man's search for a suitable mate. After publishing his collected poetry in 1882, Keller wrote his last work, Martin Salander (1886), a rather uninspired novel of Swiss political affairs.

Keller died in Zurich on July 15, 1890, acclaimed as a truly great figure of 19th-century German literature. Keller's writing displays uncommon geniality, zest for living, and rich humor. His gently moralizing style is direct, forceful, and vivid, revealing remarkable inventiveness and adroit characterization.

Further Reading on Gottfried Keller

Most of Keller's works are available in English; see especially Kuno Francke, ed., The German Classics, vol. 14 (1914), for several of the novellas. Der Grüne Heinrich was translated as Green Henry by A. M. Holt (1960). Marie Hay, The Story of a Swiss Poet (1920), is a good general introduction, particularly valuable for its detailed account of the stories. A short but trenchant study appears as a chapter in Camillo von Klenze, From Goethe to Hauptmann (1926). Walter Silz, Realism and Reality (1954), contains an excellent evaluation of Romeo und Julia auf dem Dorfe. See also the biographical essay in Alex Natan, ed., German Men of Letters (1961). For general background see Edwin Keppel Bennett, A History of the German Novelle (2d ed. rev. by H. M. Waidson, 1961).

Additional Biography Sources

Ruppel, Richard R., Gottfried Keller: poet, pedagogue, and humanist, New York: P. Lang, 1988.