Gottfried Keller

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Gottfried Keller (July 19, 1819 – July 15, 1890), a Swiss writer of German literature, was best known for his novel Green Henry (German: Der grüne Heinrich).


Life and work

His father was a lathe-worker from Glattfelden (1791-1824); his mother's maiden name was Scheuchzer (1787-1864). After his father's death, Keller's family lived in constant poverty, and, because of Keller's difficulties with his teachers, in continual disagreement with school authorities. Keller later gave a good rendering of his experiences in this period in his long novel, Der grüne Heinrich (1850-55; 2nd version, 1879). His mother seems to have brought him up in as carefree a condition as possible, sparing for him from her scanty meals, and allowing him the greatest possible liberty in the disposition of his time, the choice of a calling, etc. With some changes, a treatment of her relations to him may be found in his short story, “Frau Regel Amrain und ihr jüngster” (in the collection Die Leute von Selawyla).

Keller's first passion was painting. Expelled in a political mix-up from the Industrieschule in Zürich, he became an apprentice in 1834 to the landscape painter Steiger and in 1837 to the watercolourist Rudolf Meyer (1803-1857). In 1840, he went to Munich (Bavaria) to study art for a time at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts.

Keller returned to Zürich in 1842 and, although possessing artistic talent, took up writing. He published his first poems, Gedichte, in 1846. Jacob Wittmer Hartmann characterizes these six years at Zürich (1842-48) as a time of almost total inactivity, when Keller inclined strongly toward radicalism in politics, and was also subject to much temptation and indulged himself. From 1848 to 1850 he studied at the University of Heidelberg. There he came under the influence of the philosopher Feuerbach, and extended his radicalism also to matters of religion.

From 1850 to 1856, he worked in Berlin. Hartmann claims it was chiefly this stay in Berlin which molded Keller's character into its final shape, toned down his rather bitter pessimism to a more moderate form, and prepared him (not without the privations of hunger), in the whirl of a large city, for an enjoyment of the more restricted pleasures of his native Zürich. It was in Berlin that he turned definitely away from other pursuits and took up literature as a career.

In this period, Keller published the semi-autobiographical novel Der grüne Heinrich (Green Henry). It is the most personal of all his works. Under the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's doctrine of a return to nature, this book was at first intended to be a short narrative of the collapse of the life of a young artist. It expanded as its composition progressed into a huge work drawing on Keller's youth and career (or more precisely non-career) as a painter up to 1842. Its reception by the literary world was cool, but the second version of 1879 is a rounded and satisfying artistic product.

He also published his first collection of short stories, Die Leute von Seldwyla (The People of Seldwyla). It contains five stories averaging 60 pages each: “Pankraz der Schmoller,” “Frau Regel Amrain und ihr jüngster,” “Die drei gerechten Kammacher,” “Romeo und Julie auf dem Dorfe,” and “Spiegel das Kätzchen.” Hartmann characterizes two of the stories in Die Leute von Seldwyla as immortal: “Die drei gerechten Kammacher” he views as the most satyric and scorching attack on the sordid petit bourgeois morality ever penned by any writer, and “Romeo und Julie auf dem Dorfe” as one of the most pathetic tales in literature (Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet plot in a Swiss village setting).

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