Keller, Gottfried

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KELLER, Gottfried

Nationality: Swiss. Born: Zurich, 19 July 1819. Education: Armenschule zum Brunnenturm; Landknabeninstitut, to age 13; Industrieschule, 1832-33; studied painting with Peter Steiger, 1834, and Rudolf Meyer, 1837; Munich Academy, 1840-42. Career: Gave up art for writing in Zurich, 1842; government grant to study at University of Heidelberg, 1848-50, and University of Berlin, 1850-55; Cantonal Secretary (Staatschreiber), 1861-76. Awards: Honorary doctorate: University of Zurich, 1869. Honorary Citizen, Zurich, 1878. Member: Order of Maximilian (Bavaria), 1876. Died: 15 July 1890.



Sämtliche Werke, edited by Jonas Frankel and Carl Helbling. 24 vols., 1926-54.

Werke, edited by Clemens Heselhaus. 2 vols., 1982.

Short Stories and Novellas

Die Leute von Seldwyla. 1856-74; as The People of Seldwyla, 1911; also translated with Seven Legends, 1929.

Sieben Legenden. 1872; edited by K. Reichert, 1965; as Seven Legends, with The People of Seldwyla, 1929.

Züricher Novellen. 1877.

Das Sinngedicht. 1881.

Clothes Maketh Man and Other Swiss Stories. 1894.

Stories, edited by Frank G. Ryder. 1982.


Der grüne Heinrich. 1853-55; revised edition, 1880; as Green Henry, 1960.

Martin Salander. 1886; translated as Martin Salander, 1963.


Gedichte. 1846.

Neue Gedichte. 1852.

Gesammelte Gedichte. 1883.

Gedichte, edited by Albert Köster. 1922.


Briefwechsel, with Theodor Storm, edited by Albert Köster. 1904.

Briefwechsel, with Paul Heyse, edited by Max Kalbeck. 1919.

Keller in seinen Briefen, edited by Heinz Amelung. 1921.

Briefwechsel, with J.V. Widmann, edited by Max Widmann. 1922.

Briefe an Vieweg, edited by Jonas Fränkel. 1938.

Gesammelte Briefe, edited by Carl Helbling. 4 vols., 1950-54.

Kellers Briefe, edited by Peter Goldammer. 1960.

Briefwechsel, with Hermann Hettner, edited by Jürgen Jahn. 1964.

Aus Kellers glücklicher Zeit: Der Dichter im Briefwechsel mit Marie und Adolf Exner, edited by Irmgard Smidt. 1981.

Mein lieber Herr und bester Freund: Keller im Briefwechsel mit Wilhelm Petersen, edited by Irmgard Smidt. 1984.

Briefwechsel, with Emil Kuh, edited by Irmgard Smidt and ErwinStreitfeld. 1988.


Critical Studies:

The Cyclical Method of Composition in Keller's "Sinngedicht" by Priscilla M. Kramer, 1939; Keller: Life and Works by J. M. Lindsay, 1968; Light and Darkness in Keller's "Der grüne Heinrich" by Lucie Karcic, 1976; Keller: Poet, Pedagogue and Humanist by Richard R. Ruppel, 1988; Readers and Their Fictions in the Novels and Novellas of Keller by Gail K. Hart, 1989; Gottfried Keller: Kleider Machen Leute by David A. Jackson, 1993; The Poetics of Scepticism: Gottfried Keller and Die Leute von Seldwyla by Erika Swales, 1994; Nature, Science, Realism: A Re-examination of Programmatic Realism and the Works of Adalbert Stifter and Gottfried Keller by Thomas L. Buckley, 1995.

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Gottfried Keller's major contribution to Swiss literature lies in the short form, and although he came to such fiction relatively late in his literary career, his particular approach reveals traces of earlier ambitions. His initial desire was to be a painter, and his detailed descriptions, obvious love of the natural world, and his eye for color reflect his (unsuccessful) youthful enthusiasm for art. His first success came in verse, which remained simple and direct, and these qualities are equally evident in his prose. It was actually a modest reputation in poetry that led to the award of a scholarship from his canton to study abroad, but his attempts to become a dramatist in the country he selected (Germany) proved a failure. Yet some of the best German novellas have been written by playwrights, and Keller's sense of conflict and confrontation, as well as his straightforward language that tends to avoid subordination and encapsulation, may spring from his conscientious study of drama. Only after his long autobiographical novel was published did Keller devote himself seriously to the short form, and within a year he had published the first volume of the collection on which his reputation largely rests. With some success to his credit Keller returned to Switzerland as an independent writer. His later surprise appointment as a senior civil servant reduced his output, but he continued to compose stories, articles, and poetry.

Keller was something of an unsophisticated writer who rarely disguised his attitudes towards his characters and who had little interest in literary theory despite his study of literature and philosophy in Heidelberg. His presence is regularly felt in his paternalistic and moralistic tone, and he takes delight in criticizing folly by means of irony. Although his plots may be grounded in reality, touches of the fairy tale are common, and his characters are often caricatured. His stories usually have a leisurely pace, not helped by the occasionally irrelevant and heavily descriptive digressions that are detrimental to the balance of his pieces; but he is an entertaining and imaginative writer who can often draw the reader fully into the dilemma faced by his central figures.

Der grüne Heinrich (Green Henry) is a monument in the tradition of the German bildungsroman (novel of development); but it can be seen as a collection of episodes within a biographical frame, and the best sections are almost novellas in themselves. During its composition Keller was active in planning numerous other novellas, and the speed with which these highly successful pieces were completed suggests that his inclination and talents were far better suited to the short form.

Die Leute von Seldwyla (The People of Seldwyla), a collection published in two separate parts, contains ten such stories, which are all satirical. Although not all of these pieces are set in this imaginary town, the name has become symbolic of middle-class narrow-mindedness and profit-seeking, with the stories exposing stupidity, greed, hypocrisy, vanity, affectation, and especially the idée fixe. The methods range from light irony to farce, mild caricature to grotesque. Incongruity is common. Three stories stand out for their forceful handling of traditional themes: "A Village Romeo and Juliet," "The Three Righteous Comb-makers," and "Clothes Maketh Man." The first approaches the Shakespearean theme in a sociological manner, tracing the forces within the lower middle class that result in the tragedy. The second is a nineteenth-century version of the "rat race," showing the depths to which humans can sink in their pursuit of material goals. And the third ridicules the middle-class tendency to be deceived by fine clothes and hints of grandeur. Although Keller makes much of the fact that his tales are set in Switzerland, their themes are European and, to a large extent, timeless. Men are seen as masters of their own destiny and are ridiculed for inaction or reluctance to take responsibility for their own lot. Weakness and failure are common, although catastrophe is rare. Females are on the whole superior: more sensitive, wiser and responsible in their foresight, and often an indispensable crutch to their menfolk, who would go astray or even collapse without them. (Their maternal rather than sexual role may spring from Keller's own dependence on his mother, who supported him financially until his 42nd year.) Shortly before the second part of this cycle was published, Keller produced a sequence of parodies of miraculous events, Sieben Legenden (Seven Legends). The tone is at times frivolous. Good is always rewarded; folly and evil punished. Life, in line with Keller's atheistic beliefs, is to be enjoyed sensibly here and now.

Although Keller was a staunch liberal and played an active part in political conflicts in the 1840s, only his poems bear clear evidence of political ideology; his stories tend rather to be conservative in outlook, and the highest goal a character can achieve is to become an active and useful member of society. This becomes more marked in his later years, when he was disturbed by what he saw as a decline of moral standards and troubled by economic expansion. His collection Züricher Novellen (Zurich Novellas) praises traditional Swiss values, especially in "The Banner of the Upright Seven," but there is also criticism of an impractical older generation that is too obsessed with successes in its own past. The stories in this collection are framed within a narrative, and one of them, "The Governor of Greifensee," itself contains a series of separate stories. Keller's final major work, Das Sinngedicht (The Epigram), is a series of 13 independent tales within a frame that is a novella itself. The majority of these are concerned with problems of marriage and compatibility. Love relationships, both failed and successful, are frequently featured in Keller's writing, and the theme was undoubtedly influenced by his own frequent and unsuccessful attempts to win a wife. Partnership is seen as a key ideal.

Keller can be at times sentimental, but the tone of his short fiction is never constant; there is often a sense of ambiguity and a hint of melancholy, even mental despair, and his irony is all-pervasive.

—Peter Hutchinson

See the essay on "A Village Romeo and Juliet."

Gottfried Keller

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Gottfried Keller

The Swiss short-story writer, novelist, and poet Gottfried Keller (1819-1890) was a master of the realistic novella and author of one of the outstanding German novels of his age.

Gottfried Keller was born in Zurich on July 19, 1819, and grew up in great poverty. He managed to go to Munich to study painting, but after 2 fruitless years his insufficient talent drove him home (1842), disillusioned and distraught.

Keller's life was marked by aimlessness and general inactivity, except for the publication of Gedichten (1846), a volume of poetry, until a government grant in 1848 permitted study at Heidelberg. There he met the atheistic philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach and the literary historian Hermann Hettner, who showed him where his real talents lay. Both greatly influenced his work.

During a 5-year stay in Berlin (1850-1855), Keller began writing in earnest. Neuere Gedichte, a second volume of poems, displayed notable lyric talent. Der grüne Heinrich (1854-1855; revised 1880), a Bildungs-roman (educational novel) like Goethe's Wilhelm Meister, is largely autobiographical, depicting the frustrations of a would-be artist. The work is regarded as one of the greatest German novels of the century.

In a series of stories called Die Leute von Seldwyla (1856), Keller's deep warmth and kindly humor manifest themselves as he points up the little failings of fictitious fellow Swiss with amiable indulgence and probing insight. The series contains Romeo und Julia auf dem Dorfe, a tragic story of two lovers thwarted by an unfriendly world, and is one of his finest narratives. Frederick Delius based an opera, The Village Romeo and Juliet (1907), on the story.

After returning to Zurich, Keller curtailed his writing, devoting his time to important duties as first secretary of the canton, an appointment he held until retirement (1876). His next work was Sieben Legenden (1872), a series of medieval legends told with disarming charm and simplicity. Its success established Keller's reputation. Five more stories in the Seldwyla series appeared in 1874, among them Kleider machen Leute, one of his best-known and best-loved tales.

The Züricher Novellen (1878), dealing with actual personalities from Zurich's past, again exhibits Keller's interest in the realistic portrayal of wholesome personality development. The cycle contains two of his finest stories: Der Landvogt von Greifensee and Das Fähnlein der sieben Aufrechten. Das Sinngedicht (1881) is a series of tales humorously describing a young man's search for a suitable mate. After publishing his collected poetry in 1882, Keller wrote his last work, Martin Salander (1886), a rather uninspired novel of Swiss political affairs.

Keller died in Zurich on July 15, 1890, acclaimed as a truly great figure of 19th-century German literature. Keller's writing displays uncommon geniality, zest for living, and rich humor. His gently moralizing style is direct, forceful, and vivid, revealing remarkable inventiveness and adroit characterization.

Further Reading

Most of Keller's works are available in English; see especially Kuno Francke, ed., The German Classics, vol. 14 (1914), for several of the novellas. Der Grüne Heinrich was translated as Green Henry by A. M. Holt (1960). Marie Hay, The Story of a Swiss Poet (1920), is a good general introduction, particularly valuable for its detailed account of the stories. A short but trenchant study appears as a chapter in Camillo von Klenze, From Goethe to Hauptmann (1926). Walter Silz, Realism and Reality (1954), contains an excellent evaluation of Romeo und Julia auf dem Dorfe. See also the biographical essay in Alex Natan, ed., German Men of Letters (1961). For general background see Edwin Keppel Bennett, A History of the German Novelle (2d ed. rev. by H. M. Waidson, 1961).

Additional Sources

Ruppel, Richard R., Gottfried Keller: poet, pedagogue, and humanist, New York: P. Lang, 1988. □

Keller, Gottfried

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Keller, Gottfried

Keller, Gottfried, German harpsichordist, teacher, and composer; b. place and date unknown; d. London, Nov. 1704. He settled in London at the close of the 17th century as a performer and harpsichord teacher, known as Godfrey or Godfrido Keller. He publ. A Compleat Method for Attaining to Play a Thorough Bass upon either Organ, Harpsichord or Theorbo- lute (London, 1705; 6th ed., 1717; also publ. as an appendix to the 1731 ed. of W. Holder’s A Treatise of the Natural Grounds, and Principles of Harmony).


6 Sonates a 5 for 2 Recorders, 2 Oboes or 4 Violins, and Basso Continuo (1698; in collaboration with Finger); 8 sonates a trois instruments for 2 Recorders or Violins, and Basso Continuo and Recorder or Violin, Oboe, and Basso Continuo (1699; 1 not by Keller); 6 Sonatas: 3 for Trumpet, Oboe or Violin, Bass, and Basso Continuo and 3 for 2 Recorders, Oboes or Violins, Bass, and Basso Continuo (1700); 6 Sonatas for 2 Recorders and Basso Continuo, op. posthumous (1706).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire