Study Guide

Johann Rudolf Wyss

Johann Rudolf Wyss Biography

Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Johann Rudolf Wyss (vees), who is usually credited as the author of The Swiss Family Robinson, was born in Bern, Switzerland, on March 4, 1782. He studied at several German universities and in 1806 became a professor of philosophy at the University of Bern, where he also served as the chief librarian. In his native Switzerland he became known as a collector and editor of Swiss folklore, publishing such volumes as Idyllen, Volkssagen, Legenden, und Erzählungen aus der Schweiz (idylls, folktales, legends, and stories from the Swiss), Reise im Berner Oberland (travels in the Bernese uplands), and the fifteen-volume Die Alpenrose, an almanac. He was also the author of the Swiss national anthem.

Johann Rudolf Wyss did not apparently actually compose The Swiss Family Robinson but only wrote it down in revised form and saw to its publication. The story, obviously in partial imitation of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), was originally conceived by Wyss’s father, Johann David Wyss (1743-1818), for the enjoyment of his sons. Of the father, who was a chaplain in the Swiss army, little is known, except that he was born in 1743, became a chaplain, served in Italy, and died in 1818.

The history of The Swiss Family Robinson is an interesting one. Apparently Pastor Wyss committed his story to writing before his son revised the manuscript and had it published at Zurich, Switzerland, under the title Der schweizerische Robinson: Oder, Der schiffbrüchige Schweizerprediger und seine Familie, ein lehrreiches Buch für Kinder und Kinderfreunde zu Stadt und Land (the Swiss family Robinson: or, the shipwrecked Swiss preacher and his family, an instructional book for children and their friends in city and country). The first known English translation was by William Godwin, British philosopher, reformer, and novelist, a short time after the Zurich edition appeared. A Frenchwoman, Baroness de Montolieu, with Johann Rudolf Wyss’s approval, enlarged the story, translated it into French, and published it in 1824. Two years later the original publisher in Zurich brought out a new German edition that incorporated the baroness’s additions. Wyss died in Bern on March 21, 1830.

The first English translation of the enlarged story was made in 1868, by Mrs. H. B. Paull, who also translated Grimms’ fairy tales. Most later editions have followed Baroness de Montolieu’s edition. The book has been immensely popular in the United States and Europe with generations of children.

Johann Rudolf Wyss Bibliography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Allen, Francis H. “News for Bibliophiles.” The Nation 95, no. 2462 (September 5, 1912): 210-211.

Becker, May Lamberton. Introduction to The Swiss Family Robinson, by Johann Rudolf Wyss. Cleveland: World Publishing, 1947.

Bosworth, Allan R. Introduction to The Swiss Family Robinson, by Johann Rudolf Wyss. New York: Harper & Row, 1966.

Glaenzer, R. B. “The Swiss Family Robinson.” Bookman 34 (1911).

Howells, William Dean. Introduction to The Swiss Family Robinson, by Johann Rudolf Wyss. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1909.

Wyss, Robert L. “The Real Swiss Wysses.” Life, no. 26 (December 27, 1954): 63-64.