The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Keller, Gottfried

Edition of 1920. See also Gottfried Keller on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

KELLER, Gottfried, the best writer of short stories (Novellen) in German literature: b. Zürich, Switzerland, 19 July 1819; d. there, 17 July 1890. 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 his 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; 2d 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’). After numerous unsuccessful attempts to find a good teacher of painting, which was Keller's first passion, in his native town, he went to Munich in 1840 to study at the Royal Academy of Arts. But he soon recognized that painting was not for him and spent six years at Zürich in almost total inactivity (1842-48), inclining strongly toward radicalism in politics, but subject to much temptation and self-indulgence. In 1848 he went to Heidelberg to pursue serious studies, coming under the influence of the philosopher Feuerbach and extending his radicalism also to matters of religion. But it was chiefly his stay in Berlin (1850-56) 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 fall ‘Der grüne Heinrich’ and the first collection of ‘Die Leute von Seldwyla,’ (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,’ ‘Spiegel das Kätzchen’). ‘Der grüne Heinrich’ is the most personal of all his works; under the influence of J. J. Rousseau's doctrine of a return to nature, this book, at first intended as a short narrative of the collapse of the life of a young artist, expanded, as its composition progressed, into a huge work that treats, in poetically transfigured manner, all the events in Keller's life up to his return to Zürich in 1842. Its reception by the literary world was cool, but the later version (1879) is a rounded and satisfying artistic product. ‘Die Leute von Seldwyla’ includes at least two stories that are immortal: ‘Die drei gerechten Kammacher,’ the most satyric and scorching attack on the sordid petit bourgeois morality ever penned by any writer, and ‘Romeo und Julie auf dem Dorfe,’ one of the most pathetic tales in literature (Shakespeare's plot in a Swiss village setting). In 1861 Keller became city registrar (Staatsschreiber) of Zürich. The routine duties of this position were a sort of fixed point about which his artistic activities could revolve, but he produced little of permanent value in these years. After 15 years at this post he was retired in 1876, and began a period of literary activity that was to last to his death, living the life of an old bachelor with his sister Regula as his housekeeper. In spite of his often unsympathetic manner, his extreme reserve and idiosyncrasy in dealing with others, he had gained the affection of his fellow-townsmen and an almost universal reputation before his death.

His fame is based chiefly on 15 short stories, the five mentioned above, the five contained in the second volume of ‘Die Leute von Seldwyla’ (1874); ‘Die missbrauchten Liebesbriefe,’ ‘Der Schmied seines Glücks,’ ‘Dietegen,’ ‘Kleider machen Leute,’ ‘Das verlorene Lachen’; and five in ‘Züricher Novellen’ (1878); ‘Hadlaub,’ ‘Der Narr auf Manegg,’ ‘Der Landvogt von Greifensee,’ ‘Das Fähnlein der sieben Aufrechten,’ ‘Ursula.’ The milieu is always that of an orderly bourgeois existence, within which the most manifold human destinies, the most humorous relations are progressing, the most peculiar and hardy types of endurance and reticence being formed. Some of the stories contain a note that is new in German literature, that has endeared them particularly to Germans, as embodying an ideal as yet unrealized in their own country: they narrate the development of character under the relatively free conditions of little Switzerland, picturing an unbureaucratic civic life and an independence of business initiative that cannot but attract those who have been denied these privileges. As short stories, they cannot compare with Maupassant's or Thomas Mann's for artistic construction; they resemble those of Henry James chiefly in complexity and wealth of detail, not in sophistication and elegance; but they deal intimately and understandingly, often by caricature and exaggeration, with the motives of plain middle class persons, or those on the lower fringe of the middle class (‘Romeo und Julie auf dem Dorfe’). Physical description of a painfully detailed, yet entrancing variety, is their chief external grace: pages are devoted to the portrayal of the tiled stove (Dietegen) or a cheap cabinet (Kammacher). Keller's most mature collection of short stories is ‘Das Sinngedicht,’ containing ‘Die arme Baronin,’ ‘Der Geisterseher,’ ‘Regine,’ ‘Don Correa,’ ‘Berlocken’ (1882). In the form of what the Germans call “eine Rahmenerzählung” (a framework story, stories within a story), it unites a continuous narrative with a number of interposed, independent tales, a device of which Boccaccio is the most illustrious exponent, and which German writers have consciously developed to a high degree of perfection. Die sieben Legenden’ (1872, containing ‘Eugenia,’ ‘Die Jungfrau und der Teufel,’ ‘Die Jungfrau und der Ritter,’ ‘Das Tanzlegendchen,’ etc.) is a similar collection, in which the author has adopted his merry art of narrative to an ecclesiastical outline. His last work is ‘Martin Salander,’ in which his creative and descriptive powers seem no longer at their full height. It is the old opposition of the risen and the rising generation, in his usual Swiss setting. The significance of family life and the relation of the individual to society are well put. By German critics, Keller is also placed very high as a lyric poet. (See Der Grüne Heinrich).

The ‘German Classics’ (Vol. XIV, New York 1914) has translations of ‘A Village Romeo and Juliet,’ ‘The Governor of Greifensee,’ ‘The Company of the Upright Seven,’ ‘Ursula,’ with ‘Life of Keller’ by J. A. Walz. Consult ‘Werke’ (10 vols., Stuttgart 1909); ‘Nachgelassene Schriften und Dichtungen’ (Berlin 1893); Hauch, Edward F., ‘Gottfried Keller as a Democratic Idealist’ (New York 1916); Baechtold, Jakob, ‘Gottfried Kellers Leben, Briefe, und Tagebücher’ (3 Vols., Stuttgart and Berlin 1894-97); Baechtold, ‘Keller: Bibliographie’ (Berlin 1897); Baldensperger, Ferdinand, ‘Gottfried Keller, sa vie et ses œuvres’ (Paris 1899); Huch, Ricarda, ‘Gottfried Keller’ (Berlin n.d.); Köster, Albert, ‘Gottfried Keller’ (Leipzig 1907); Köster, ‘Der Briefwechsel zwischen Theodor Storm und Gottfried Keller’ (Berlin 1909).