Gottfried Keller
Gottfried Keller; drawing by David Levine

In a brilliant essay called “Unbehagen im Kleinstaat” (“Petty-State Malaise”), the Swiss writer Karl Schmid has described the difficulty that many of his country’s leading writers have had in identifying with the land of their birth. Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, Amiel, Jakob Burckhardt, Jakob Schaffner, and Max Frisch have been among those who were oppressed by the feeling that Switzerland was, in a sense, excluded from history, that it has a peripheral and insubstantial existence among other states and cultures; and, as a nation, was incapable even of making its own decisions, which were preordained by its policy of neutrality. All of them, in varying degrees, yearned after the “greatness” that they could not find at home.

Meyer, for example, who once wrote to a friend, “Swissness repels me!” devoted himself to the writing of stories about strong and self-willed figures of the past (Ulrich von Hutten, Jürg Jenatsch, Gustavus Adolfus), whose uncomplicated heroism he underlined by portraying most of his Swiss characters as calculating, cautious, and incapable of noble impulse. Jakob Schaffner, like Meyer an uncritical admirer of Germany, spent most of his mature life in Berlin, where he died as a supporter of National Socialism; Frisch, untouched by any attraction to other countries, has yet resisted belonging to his own, alienated both by its smallness and what he considers to be its pharisaical morality, and has found his refuge in irony and work.

Conspicuously missing from Schmid’s account is the figure of Gottfried Keller, and this is as it should be, for it would never have occurred to Keller (as it would not have occurred to Swiss writers of comparable stature like Pestalozzi and Jeremias Gotthelf) to question, let alone regret, his Swissness. Indeed, Keller’s positive identification with Switzerland, his pride in the accomplishments of Swiss democracy and his faith in its future, characterized virtually all of his work. It also protected it from the salient weaknesses of the German literature of his day which, as a result of the failure of the revolutions of 1848, had lost its confidence and its critical capacity and had shriveled into provincialism and agrarian romanticism. In contrast, a story like Keller’s “Romeo and Juliet in the Village,” which is on the surface a trivial tale about property disputes and their effects upon the lives of the children of the disputants, assumes a force of which German writers like Berthold Auerbach and Wilhelm Raabe were quite incapable, precisely because Keller’s pride in his country and its ancient democracy, and his tendency to see his land in Homeric terms, invests its passions and ultimate tragedy with an epic quality.

Gottfried Keller was born in 1819 in Zurich, where his childhood was made unhappy by the early death of his father, the poverty of his family, and his expulsion from school in 1834 as a result of a student riot in which his role had been a minor one. This last event effectively barred the way to a career in business or one of the professions, and he resolved, without much reflection, to become a painter. His first experiments were made while living with his father’s relatives in the village of Glattfelden, and he also had some instruction in Zurich, but nothing that he learned prepared him to meet the challenges he encountered when he tried to establish himself as a landscape painter in Munich. After two years of poverty and failure, he returned to Zurich in 1842 with his hopes shattered.

The story of this failure was to form the basis of his novel Green Henry, but that work, in its first version, was not to be published until 1855, and Keller’s road toward its writing was highly indirect. After his return from Munich, he became involved in the political and confessional struggles that were to eventuate in the Sonderbund war of 1847, in which the Catholic rural cantons unsuccessfully resisted integration into a federal state. Keller was a member of the radical democratic circle of Adolph August Follen and a friend of the German revolutionary poet Ferdinand Freiligrath, and he became an ardent pamphleteer and writer of superheated political verse, including a notorious “Jesuit Song,” which included the lines,

O Switzerland, you beautiful bride,
You are affianced to the devil!
Yes, weep, you poor child!
An ill wind is blowing from the Gotthard.
They’re coming, the Jesuits!

Keller participated in the two Freischarenzüge (free corps expeditions) that tried, but failed, to throw the Jesuits out of Lucerne in 1844 and 1845. The subsequent war between the cantons and the resultant creation of the new federal state aroused his unqualified enthusiasm, and he wrote in his diary at the end of 1847 that the courage, determination, and patience shown by the liberal leaders of his own canton during the recent events had helped transform him from “a vague revolutionary and Freischärler à tout prix” to an admirer of the political qualities that had given Zurich a position of moral leadership in the movement to create a more perfect union.


His pride in the new democratic dispensation (which inspires a lyrical passage in praise of popular sovereignty in one of the last chapters of Green Henry) was repaid when the liberal government of Zurich provided him with a grant that enabled him to study for three semesters at Heidelberg in 1848 (where the lectures of Ludwig Feuerbach had a profound and negative effect upon his attitude toward Christianity), and subsequently supported him during a five-year period in Berlin, where he tried to become a dramatist. His theatrical ambitions proved to be as unsuccessful as his artistic ones, but he discovered that he had a talent for fiction and during his stay in Berlin finished the first version of Green Henry and most of the first sequence of Züricher Novellen called The People of Seldwyla. He returned to Zurich in 1855 and for the next six years played an active part in the intellectual life of his city, which had been much enlivened by the incursion of German and Italian intellectuals driven from their own countries by the repression of the revolutions of 1848. He was on particularly intimate terms with Jakob Burckhardt and with Richard Wagner, the architect Gottfried Semper, and the aestheticist Friedrich Theodor Vischer of the German exile community.

This was not the happiest period of Keller’s life, for he was deeply in debt, drinking too much, and living a life described by one of his biographers as verging on hopeless dissipation. On September 23, 1861, he attended a large party at the Swan given by the poet Georg Herweghs and his wife in honor of their visitors, the German Socialist Ferdinand Lassalle and his friend Countess Sophie Hatzfeldt. The company was mixed and, under the influence of floods of champagne, very free in its comportment. Or so Keller, who had not stinted himself on the wine, seemed to believe. As the guests began to call for the guest of honor to demonstrate his powers as magnétiseur by hypnotizing Herwegh, he suddenly shouted, “That’s too much for me, you riffraff, you crooks!” and showed every intention of braining Lassalle with a chair until he was restrained by the other male guests and ejected.

But this marked the end of hand-to-mouth existence, for Keller resolved to redeem his obligation to the state, and the next day—at a rather later hour, to be sure, than he had expected—he began what was to become fifteen years of service as the canton’s chief clerk (Erster Staatsschreiber). The position was a demanding one, for the incumbent not only had to administer the work of the state chancery and serve as secretary of the Department of Political Affairs but was charged with keeping the protocols of the governing council and maintaining liaison with federal agencies and other cantonal governments. These duties, which Keller performed to the high satisfaction of all parties, left little time for other activities, and his literary production during his years as Staatsschreiber was restricted to the charming Seven Legends, which had been drafted in Berlin, the expanded Seldwyla stories, and a large number of prologues, cantatas, songs, and patriotic verse for public occasions, which won popular acclaim and made him a kind of unofficial national poet laureate. It was not until after his retirement in 1876 that he resumed writing in a systematic way, completing the two volumes of his Züricher Novellen, the cycle of connected stories called The Epigram (Das Sinngedicht), the novel Martin Salander, and the revision of Green Henry before his death in 1890.

It is probably true that of all his works the ones with the greatest popular appeal were the Seldwyla stories and the patriotic “Little Banner of the Seven Upright Ones” from the Züricher Novellen, but it was Green Henry that won him recognition far beyond the confines of his own country and led Nietzsche to call him “the only living German writer.” Keller conceived the work in 1842 as “a sad little novel about the wreckage of a young artist’s career in which mother and son were destroyed,” but in the writing it grew far beyond those modest dimensions, largely because of the very exuberance of Keller’s descriptive powers. Hegel maintained that the essence of the epic was the ability to create the totality of the objects seen, that is, to describe the whole social life of the characters in all of its breadth and fullness, which can only be done by seeing all of the subsidiary characters in their fullness too. This is what Keller does in the opening section of his novel, which deals with the childhood and early sorrows of his hero, an astonishing portrait of the petit-bourgeois milieu in Zurich of the 1830s, filled with arresting personalities whose stories are as interesting as the hero’s own; and this is what he does again when he treats the failure of his hero’s artistic hopes in Germany, first in a meticulous description of the artists’ colony in Munich, “the Hollywood of the first age of speculators,” in Adolf Muschg’s phrase, and then in a harrowing personal account of what isolation and abject poverty can do to the human mind and soul, which is one of the greatest of Keller’s artistic achievements.


In 1927, in his introduction to the critical edition of Keller’s works, Walter Benjamin wrote that it was not only his descriptive powers that captivated the reader, or the incisiveness of his comments on such varied matters as the magic qualities of money and the relationship between abstract art and beauty, but his incalculable humor, which did not manifest itself as “a golden polish on the surface” but rumbled about in the deep caverns that lay beneath the narrative and expressed itself also in “the bulgy arabesques” of Keller’s style. This is true enough. Even Keller’s feckless hero, who stumbles from disaster to disaster, is sustained by the healing resource of humor, by his ability, for example, to see that there is a rich justice in the fact that his extravagant dreams of becoming a painter come in the end only to a commission to paint staffs for little flags that will be waved at a Bavarian princeling’s wedding, thus turning him, he reflects ruefully, into just one more Swiss mercenary in foreign service.

Keller was proud of his female characters, who are also great humorists, and in one of his poems he asks Death to forgive him for having cultivated the poetic sin of creating “sweet figures of women such as this bitter earth will not sustain.” His works abound with fascinating portraits of women who combine personal integrity and moral courage with beauty, wit, and discernment—Figura Leu in “The Landvogt of Greifensee” in the Züricher Novellen, for example, Lucie in The Epigram, and Marie Salander in Keller’s second novel. In Green Henry we find two of the greatest of such creations. Dortchen Schönfund, the charming Feuerbachianer, cheerfully robs the hero of his belief in God and personal immortality in order to cure him of his obsession with self and to enable him to see the world as it is and the things that can be done in it. The beautiful widow Judith loves the young hero but is his most relentless critic. A woman of the people who seems at times to be a manifestation of nature, she is perhaps the only female character in German literature who does not pale when compared with Goethe’s Philine. Keller may indeed have been thinking of Philine when he created her, and Georg Lukács has pointed to the common chord of feeling between Philine’s remark to Wilhelm Meister, “And if I love you, what concern is that of yours?” and Judith’s telling Green Henry, after bitterly reproaching him for his shabby treatment of his former teacher, “Unfortunately, I don’t feel that you have been in any way hateful to me; what would we be here for, if we didn’t have to love human beings as they are?”

Like Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, by which it was obviously influenced and with which it has some striking formal similarities, Green Henry is a novel of education. It tells the story of how a young man who feels that he was robbed of his youth by misfortune and injustice, and who shirks his responsibilities to family and community in order to indulge his fantasies, is slowly and painfully educated in the duties of citizenship. In the first version of the novel, the educational process fails and the young man dies. In the second, it succeeds, not least of all because the hero is finally convinced, during his stay in Dortchen Schönfund’s castle (which plays the same role in the story as the Turmgesellschaft does in Wilhelm Meister), that individual happiness is to be found only in living and working with others, and begins systematically to train himself for a career of public service. (Keller wrote at one point: “The moral of my book is that anyone who doesn’t succeed in bringing his personal relations and those of his family into a secure state is also incapable of assuming an effective position in civil life.”)

Night after night, during his darkest time in Munich, Green Henry’s mind had been touched with dreams of longing for his homeland, dreams in which Switzerland assumed fantastic and even threatening forms. Now, with his fortunes and his confidence restored by his stay in the castle, he goes home with love and a hope in the future, crossing the border just at that moment, he writes later, when

the metamorphosis of a five-hundred-year-old Confederation into a Federal State, terminated an organic process that in its energy and diversity caused the smallness of the country to be forgotten, since nothing is in itself small and nothing is large, and a bee-hive rich in cells, buzzing and well-armed, is of more significance than an enormous heap of sand.

As he walks forward toward his home, he sees

the rich moulding of my native land, in plains and sheets of water calm and flat, in the mountains steeply and boldly jagged, at my feet the blossoming earth, and near the sky a marvellous wild region, all incessantly changing, and hiding many well-populated valleys and electoral districts. With the thoughtlessness of youth or childhood, I considered the beauty of the country to be a historical and political merit, in a sense a patriotic achievement of the people and synonymous with freedom itself.

The death of his mother still awaits him, but in a real sense his journey is over, and the novel ends with this eulogy of the new democratic Switzerland, its natural beauties, and the virtues of its citizens.

Keller has been accused, notably by Adolf Muschg in his remarkable biographical study of the author, of having had an idealized view of his fatherland, springing in part from his strong sense of obligation to it, and from his unwillingness to admit that the commonwealth was being progressively divided and the values of its citizens systematically eroded by the burgeoning power of capitalism. This is undoubtedly true, although, as Muschg also points out, the writer Keller always had a sharper eye than Keller the citizen.

The social and political threat posed by capitalism was never far from his mind in his late years. In “The Little Banner of the Seven Upright Ones,” one of the characters says, “Luckily, there are no terribly rich people among us; wealth is fairly enough divided. But just let fellows with many millions appear, who have political ambitions, and you’ll see what mischief they’ll get up to!” and, in his nightmares in Munich, Green Henry’s mind is troubled by the thought that national identity may really boil down to the question of who has money and who has not. Both “The Lost Laugh,” the last of the Seldwyla stories, and Martin Salander show a deep pessimism with respect to the ability of democratic values in general, and freedom in particular, to withstand the encroachment of materialism, although the problem does not receive the systematic treatment that it deserves.

This was in part due to the waning of Keller’s powers, but more perhaps to the persistence of his faith in his people and his country. At the end of Green Henry, the hero, now established as the chief administrator of a political district, comments on what he has learned from his job in terms that probably accorded with Keller’s own views. He writes:

I saw how in my beloved Republic there were people who made this word into an empty phrase and carried it about with them just as wenches going to the fair might carry a small basket on their arm. Others regarded the ideas, Republic, Freedom, and Fatherland, as three goats which they milked continually, in order to make all kinds of little goatsmilk cheeses, while using the words sanctimoniously, exactly like the Pharisees and Tartuffes. Others again, the slaves of their own passions, scented everywhere nothing but servitude and treason, like a poor dog whose nose had been smeared with whey cheese and who consequently thinks the whole world is made of it. Even this scenting of a state of bondage had a certain small current value, but patriotic selfpraise was always above it. The whole thing was a pernicious mildew with the power to destroy a community if it grows too luxuriantly and densely; yet the main body of the people was in a healthy condition, and as soon as it bestirred itself in earnest, the mildew of itself fell away in dust.

This Issue

June 25, 1987