Gottfried Keller, born in Zurich in 1819, is the outstanding Swiss writer of poetic realism. His father died when he was young, and he was first apprenticed to a landscape painter. However, as a result of his interest in politics he published some verses in 1846 which made possible a brief period of formal study at Heidelberg.
An abortive attempt at writing drama resulted in his turning to the novel and novella. Written in German, his novellas are still considered the best in that language. The People of Seldwyla, for example, is a collection of tales about an imaginary town in Switzerland, which describes accurately the people, customs, emotions, and tragedies typical of Swiss life. His first novel is an autobiographical work resembling Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister (1795) in its philosophical overtones. In his later novellas dealing with Zurich life Keller turned to patriotic motifs with religious overtones.
In all his writing Keller was a spokesman of democracy; he maintained an easy tolerance, a belief in the good in human nature, and a kindly humor. Although tolerant, he was not without strong convictions. In Martin Salander, an unfinished novel, Keller struck out at shallowness and political intrigue while affirming his faith in the stability and soundness of Swiss democracy. His style, in fiction and poetry, is simple, colorful, sincere, and heartwarming in its humanitarianism. He is considered the most beloved writer of Switzerland. He died in Zurich on July 15, 1890.