Gottfried Keller Biography


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.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Gottfried Keller spent most of his life in his native Zurich, where he was born into the family of a turner who died when Keller was five years old. The loss of his father had far-reaching and most unfortunate consequences for the imaginative boy’s upbringing and education, even though his mother did the best she could for him, given her limited perspective and financial resources. What he lacked most were guidance and understanding. He attended an elementary school for poor children and then later the Cantonal Industrial School, from which he was expelled in 1834 for his part in a rather harmless student demonstration against an unpopular teacher. At a young age, Keller thus found himself with little chance for continued schooling and no particular prospects for the future.

He had been spending much of his spare time at home drawing and painting, and he announced that he wanted to become a painter. His mother arranged for him to take lessons in Zurich, and in 1840 he was able to leave for Munich, Germany, to further his studies. In 1842, he returned home, apparently having accomplished little, unable to sell his paintings. In July of 1843, he recorded in his diary a strong desire to become a writer, a wish that he carried out by publishing political and other poetry, the first collection of which appeared in 1846. In 1848, the Zurich government gave Keller a stipend to enable him to attend lectures in Heidelberg, Germany. This proved to be a turning point in his life, for there he heard the atheist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, whose thoughts Keller welcomed as a release from the burden of...

(The entire section is 656 words.)