Gottfried Keller – great realist and democratic admonisher

200 years ago, the poet and writer was born in Zurich

von Dr. Peter Küpfer, Germanist

Gottfried Keller was not born to the manner to become a worldwide renowned Swiss writer, apart from Pestalozzi, that his works had an impact and reverberation all over the world and continued to have an impact in Switzerland itself until well into the second half of the 20th century, especially as a base stock collection of literature in our schools. The Zurich writer of world standing had to achieve all this through many years of patient self-education, for the most part completely independently and with little outside help. Throughout the world, his works are regarded as testimonies of a cosmopolitan, self-confident Swiss spirit that entitles to pride and imitation. Unfortunately, in the meantime it has become quieter around the merited master, probably not quite by chance. The Swiss themselves risk forgetting what price they paid for their direct democracy and what can sustain it. Against this backdrop, various honours on the occasion of the jubilee this year, appear somewhat dutiful, and are often directed at side aspects of Keller’s monumental achievement. Gottfried Keller was a political writer through and through, not in the sense of party politics, but in the sense of his basic conviction: that the demanding democracy as it is laid down in the Swiss constitution can only flourish if the individual makes his or her contribution to the whole. For Gottfried Keller, the central meaning of his literary work lay in the question under which conditions, external and internal, the citizens of a truly democratic country would be able not only to live their own interests, but also to contribute to the success of the whole with their very own individual powers. In 1848, one year after the last Swiss civil war (the Sonderbund War), the fathers of the new Switzerland assumed that it was necessary to create an entity that was essentially based on hard-won insights, precisely because they were aware of the, at times, bloody differences that shaped the history of the Swiss Confederation and often also set it back in its development: National harmony and cultural and political diversity were no longer to form unbridgeable rifts in modern Switzerland. On the contrary. The constitution of the new Switzerland of 1848 offered citizens and groups of the democratic society room and respect for their diversity, and even encouraged it. Under one condition, however, and it should continue to be a beacon for us modern Swiss as well: That the diversity of people, of their being and working, does not lead to unbridgeable rifts. Rather, that the diversity of opinions is the foundation on which democracy is built, and even more so that it is the basic substance that holds our democracy together with its diverse cultures. Under one essential condition. It says that this diversity of thinking and feeling has to serve the welfare of all and does not merge into the power struggle of different lobbies, but offers a hand to a genuine compromise, which is not flimsy when it honestly and with a view to the whole seeks sustainable common paths. In his work, the writer not only masterfully depicted this fundamental conviction and shaped it in colorful human fates, he also lived it himself, as the following view of Gottfried Keller’s life is intended to illustrate.

A child of Zurich’s Old Town

Gottfried Keller was born in Zurich’s Old Town on 19 July 1819. He spent his childhood in the still existing Haus zur Sichel at Rindermarkt No. 9. Zurich was then still strongly influenced by the Biedermeier period, in post-Napoleonic times. The winding old town offered space for individuality and independence of mind, and people also disposed over something that we have lost completely: time. In the first part of his autobiographical and enchanting novel “Der grüne Heinrich” (“Green Henry”, translated 1960 into English) Gottfried Keller’s colourful youth is portrayed in rich colours in the midst of sometimes bizarre, but at its core mostly lovable people. During the first decades of the 19th century, everyday life in Zurich’s Old Town replaced much of missed schooling for the adolescent writer with a school of life.
Gottfried Keller’s father was a good craftsman and innovator; he maintained a flourishing turnery. His attitude was liberal, he was fond of the new wind, blowing mainly from France from the thirties onwards. Even before the foundation of modern Switzerland, he advocated general education of all classes of society, including the needy. He was the initiator and co-sponsor of the so-called School for the Poor. It had set itself the goal of enabling children from less well-off backgrounds to receive a solid education. He was aware, that the rights of a democratic citizen could only be exercised if he had a real life education and was able to participate spiritually, recognising what was beneficial or detrimental to the general public. Although in good circumstances himself, he wanted his son to complete the first years of school in this School for the Poor. Gottfried Keller’s childhood and youth years were not free of traumas. In the first years of his life, four siblings died early as children. Two years after the birth of his sister Regula, when Gottfried Keller was five years old, the father died of severe tuberculosis. This sudden death plunged the family, now kept afloat by the capable mother with an iron will to save, into a temporary extreme material shortage. From now on, every cent had to be turned over three times before it was spent.
The school years, for which the mother had laboriously saved up the necessary money (we are in these years still far away from the blessing of the general compulsory attendance of school, which was not included in the constitution until 1948), and was oriented by her towards taking up a profession as a craftsman, like the revered deceased. Gottfried Keller was an efficient, talented pupil, even if some of his teachers accused him of occasional obstinacy, even defiance. At the age of 14, the then proud graduate of the Zurich Municipal Industrial School was expelled from this school because of a childish prank. At first he did not even know what to do with his life. The young man greatly dismayed his mother when he told her that it was his wish to become a painter. Art painter, in bourgeois, craft-centred Zurich of the forties, was more than just cracking a hard nut. After unsuccessful attempts to acquire the appropriate knowledge in Zurich – young Keller worked in a graphic institution in the production of postcards and was then occasionally pupil of a landscape painter. The plan arose to get the necessary education at the Munich Art Academy.

Years of training and travel full of deprivation

At the time, the pleasure-loving and economically prosperous capital of the self-confident kingdom of Bavaria was already a European Mecca for artists-to-be. However, the two years, spent by the young art enthusiast from Zurich in Munich turned out to be years of suffering and hunger. The second part of “Green Henry” bears eloquent witness to this. He was not exactly adept with scarce money available, indecisiveness and little orientation at his disposal to devote himself to the academic art business. Increasing insecurity in light of the young talents from all over the world shaking hands here so that the young Keller, after two years of groping attempts as a painter, had to return home unsuccessfully and fruitless. There was not much left in his pocket than a few notes on “Green Henry,” a few watercolours and sketches. Although, Gottfried Keller was anything but what is commonly understood as a perpetual student in Munich. Time and again he forced himself to produce pictures. However, they found little mercy before his own rigorous standard. In the last months before his return, he sold most of these pictures to a dawdler, whereupon they were lost. In the harsh reality, there just was not a noble count as in novels that liked the pictures and bought them all. Today, there are, after all, a few paintings by Keller’s hand in the Central Library of Zurich, including the oil painting “Heroic Landscape”. They show that a strong talent was at work.

What next?

Back in Zurich, the 23-year-old’s interest shifted more towards writing. The first lyrical attempts and journalistic work originate. Keller socialised in the politically and literarily highly active “scene”, as we would call it nowadays, of German democratic intellectuals who, in 1830 had rescued themselves from the grip of political reaction to liberal Zurich. This radical-democratic to early-socialist inspired circle included the pre-March revolutionaries Julius Fröbel, August Follen, Georg Herwegh and Ferdinand Freiligrath. Keller’s first published poem, his often quoted “Jesuit Song”, dates from this period and is written in the polemic and radical tone of his role models. Later, Keller distanced himself from the militant, openly inflammatory style of this poem. Gradually, Keller found his own lyrical tone in landscape and love poems. The style in the initial texts was still influenced by romanticism, however, repeatedly interrupted by turning to the real, experienced reality – similar to Heine’s poems, which the becoming writer read with reverence. In 1846, Gottfried Keller’s first literary work, a slim volume of poems in quite independent form and subject matter, was published by Anton Winter, a Heidelberg publisher.

Heidelberg and Berlin

After this first publication, Keller’s decision was firm. He wanted to become a writer, a playwright in particular, as earth-shattering as Schiller. Schiller, who taught history in Jena, had drawn much of his material from his historical research. At that time, Keller strongly felt the lack of comprehensive knowledge. How does one catch up? That was when influential friends of the family, among them Alfred Escher, born in the same year as Keller, the later “Railway King”, founder of the Swiss Credit Bank and initiator of the Gotthard tunnel, stood up for Gottfried Keller, but also former teachers from the industrial school. He received a scholarship from the Canton of Zurich for an educational journey, and was recommended an Oriental trip. Keller, however, wanted something more tangible and decided to use the money for further education as a student at the University of Heidelberg. While in Switzerland the transformation of the former Confederation, the Swiss Confederation, into a federal state was being promoted, Keller moved to the University of Heidelberg. There, he was impressed by the German materialist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach from the Hegel School.
In a long and personal confrontation with the debate-loving philosopher, Keller abandoned his child-like faith, especially in human immortality and the associated belief in paradise. This, Keller wrote in letters to his friends, had by no means obscured the world for him. Quite the contrary, he saw life now with completely different eyes. The world had become more colourful and intense for him. He felt more clearly that life had to be taken as a unique gift. This gift also included the fact that one uses it and that our very personal imprint was recognisable in the small trace that we humans leave in the world. From this moment on the life task of every human being was for Keller significantly clearer. For him as well, it was now a matter of recognising his own unmistakable contribution to the whole and then do it.
This contemplation had a noticeable burdening effect on his mind, which was often strained. From this time on, Keller took the helm of his life boat more consciously and powerfully into his own hands. An unfortunate love (it was not the first and should not be the last) made his decision easier.
It was up to him now to write plays for the theatre. For this he had to go to Berlin, the German-language literary centre at the time. His scholarship was renewed by the Canton of Zurich three times. With further support from his mother, that included the sale of the “Haus zur Sichel” at the Rindermarkt and moving with her daughter to a modest apartment in Zurich-Hottingen, he stayed for five years in Berlin, the vibrant capital of the Prussian king. There, it still was not easy for him to work on his “Green Henry”, which had become a serious business by now. It was ever again interrupted by other matters that were also important to him: There were the invitations to literary salons, which had to be accepted regularly for his becoming known as a young writer, where everyone of distinction was socialising, the theatre visits of world premieres and the reviews thereon in the Berlin press as well as very detailed exchanges of letters. And then there was something he did not tell anyone: during this time, sketches and concepts for numerous short stories were written, so to speak alongside, which Keller later mainly published under the titles “Die Leute von Seldwyla” (“The People of Seldwyla”, translated 1970 into English) and “Züricher Novellen” (“Zurich Novellas”). He also continued to work as a poet and was able to publish the volume “Neuere Gedichte” (“Modern Poems”) in 1851 with the renowned publisher Vieweg in Braunschweig. Finally, after steadfast encouragement and demand from Vieweg, his “Green Henry” could finally appear in the same publishing house, which Keller, in his own words, literally had to wring from himself in agony and tears. With the fee for his monumental first novel the debts could be paid off, but not more.


Once again Keller was completely destitute when he returned to Zurich before Christmas 1855, and meanwhile 35 years old, lived again and still with his mother and sister. His material worries would have been solved at a single blow a year earlier. He was officially asked to take over the chair of literary history at the newly founded Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. Keller refused out of overly great modesty in the opinion of his friends.

After his return, Keller immediately continued to work as a writer. In a surprisingly short time he wrote the five novellas almost in a flow, which a few months later appeared again at Vieweg with the title “The people of Seldwyla”. Keller had conceived them in his head and in his notes to such an extent that they were written in record time in the last years of Berlin, when Vieweg, under threat of suspending payment, forbade him to publish other texts before his “Green Henry” was not finished. The Novella collection was well received by critics and was praised.
Now the “official” Zurich also became aware of Gottfried Keller. The writer corresponded with Jacob Burckhardt, Gott­fried Semper, the literary historian Fried­rich Theodor Vischer and the composer Richard Wagner. The novella “Das Fähnlein der sieben Aufrechten” (“The Banner of the Upright Seven”, translated 1974 into English) was published in Berthold Auerbach’s “Deutscher Volks-Kalender”, but it was far from a popular story. The love story between two children of craftsmen is devoid of any late-romantic behaviour. It shows that even in the circle of deserved radical democrats, the “uprights”, as they call themselves, self-righteousness and a narrow-minded pursuit of petty personal advantages exist, attitudes that are corrected by life itself. As is often the case in Keller’s novellas, this correction is made by young protagonists and by the courageous wife of one of the main characters.

First State Secretary of the Canton of Zurich

Despite all this, Gottfried Keller was not able to feed his family, that had sacrificed itself for him until then, with his writing. Then an unexpected turn arrived. In the administration of the Canton of Zurich, the responsible position of First State Secretary became vacant. The holder of this office corresponded in his functions roughly to what we now call a government secretary. He was not only responsible for the thorough recording of government council meetings. He also had to represent the canton in official businesses or prepare them. At that time the canton had many more powers than today. Keller agreed and held this office with the greatest care for 15 years, until 1876. At one stroke, the narrow pecuniary conditions were overcome. He was preoccupied with this office. Of course he could not produce much literature for this reason alone. After all, the “Sieben Legenden” (“Seven Legends”, translated 1970 into English) appeared in this time, a genuine Keller reinterpretation of motifs from Christian Saints’ literature. With him the saints, especially Mary, have a lot of understanding for people, especially when they truly love. The love of man takes the place of the fear of God. Where it asserts itself against hypocrisy and violent circumstances, Mary often not only turns a blind eye, she even provides tangible help.
After 15 years of most faithful performance of his duties, Keller resigned from his office. Some critics see this stage of his life as a violent interruption of his career as a writer, which is not the case. Others stress the need of the craftsman’s son to finally secure his family financially, which does not seem wrong, but somewhat one-sided. If one looks at the “Zurich Novellas” and the novel about old age “Martin Salander” (translated 1963 into English), another motif for this phase of his life is obvious. In these texts Keller intensifies the theme that the individual does not live for himself, but is integrated into a society that sustains and supports him and to which he therefore owes something. This applies in particular to modern Switzerland, which in the meantime had become a federal state governed direct-democratic under the constitution of 1848, and which was already unique in Europe at that time. It was the Canton of Zurich that, in decisive years, had paved the way for him to become a writer by granting him an extraordinary scholarship. It was his mother and sister who had made his sometimes arduous career possible by giving up so much. And it was also his paternal legacy in him, that had shown him that the citizen in democracy should not only enjoy advantages, but also have reason to serve the whole with his abilities. All of this was satisfied with his 15 years of service to the community.
The diligence and competence in the performance of his office, for which he was honoured from various sides, show that this service to the community had not simply been a drudgery for him. Gottfried Keller would probably not have endured this for 15 years.

Years of maturing

Gottfried Keller’s “Zurich Novellas” was published by Göschen, in Stuttgart, just one year after the time as a state secretary. They give a kind of echo to “The People of Seldwyla”. While in the early volume of novellas the psychological dominates human entanglements, the Zurich Novellas are clearly written by a writer who has dealt intensively with the history of this canton. In the individual fates, a decisive period of Zurich’s history is always incorporated. It is not simply a matter of decoration, but a defining element in the narrative. People are shaped by their historical situation and must prove themselves in it, for example as against the elitism of the old Zurich knightly dynasties, the rough mercenaries in the time of the Burgundy Wars, the turmoil of the Reformation with its bigoted self-proclaimed prophets, the Anabaptists.
Four years later Keller’s last novella collection was published under the title “Das Sinngedicht” (“The Epigram”). A classical frame novella holds the individual dramatic events together. They are once again strongly directed inwards and vary in a highly artistic way the theme of how two young people come together in love – a central task of life according to Alfred Adler, whose fulfilment Keller, this fine portrayer of the complexity of love, was denied in life. Here, too, nothing is left to chance or superstition. Where bonding succeeds, it is based on the ability of lovers to give themselves to one another and to help happiness actively, but not presumptuously, through decisive action. Where it fails, and this is the case with most novellas, egotistical superimpositions and petty arithmetic interfere.

Political legacy

The new version of “Green Henry” also falls into this period. According to many friends, including Theodor Storm, with whom he corresponded intensively, he cut back the all too luxuriant uncontrolled proliferation of his monumental debut somewhat, in terms of content and sometimes also in terms of language. In 1886, four years before Keller’s death, his last work, the old-age novel “Martin Salander”, was published. It shows in great concentration the weaknesses of Switzerland at that time, which Keller probably recognised even more clearly, not least because of his insights as a state secretary. With some painful episodes, a capable former Swiss teacher and merchant and his family are envisioned. Through his credulity and honesty, he falls victim to ingenious criminal machinations that not only undermine his laboriously and righteously built wealth, but also his family. His two daughters fell in with a pair of brothers who, as notaries with criminal energy, became ever more deeply involved in fraudulent transactions that lead them to ruin themselves and the two Salander daughters entrusted to them. As in the “The Banner of the Upright Seven”, it is again the wife and the young son who are firmly down to earth despite all the turmoil and bring the rolling boat back on course, whereby it is clear to every reader that the weak points revealed in the “real existing” Swiss democracy of the founding years have not been remedied. As in other texts from Keller, the realisation shines through, that democracy cannot succeed without moral and ethical dependence to the whole. While in “The People of Seldwyla” and in the “Zurich Novellas” the villains, who only pursue their own narrow interests, are punished or corrected by the events themselves, the ulcer of boundless and unprincipled egoism is not defeated once and for all in “Martin Salander”. It is Gottfried Keller’s great achievement that, as a writer and statesman, he recognised these weaknesses, which today have taken on much more threatening dimensions, as early as his time and created them in an exciting way. One more reason, to read his works again. They also give us information about today.
In the last years of life, fatigue and then illness became noticeable. One year before his death, Gottfried Keller still found the strength to arrange his life’s work in the first complete edition in 10 volumes, published in Berlin, and to hand it over to posterity. At his funeral on 18 July 1890, one day before his 71st birthday, his coffin was followed by a crowd of mourners unseen in Zurich.    •

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