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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Gottfried Keller (1819–1890)

THE GERMAN Cantons of Switzerland, which during the early eighteenth century occupied so prominent a place in the annals of German culture, have in the nineteenth century done much to regain this prominence. The brilliantly imaginative and richly colored paintings of Arnold Böcklin, Conrad Ferdinand Meyer’s semi-historical romances charged with the emotional fervor of our own time, and above all, the exquisite tales of Gottfried Keller, with their blending of the humorous and the tragic, of the romantic and the realistic, declare the energy of Teutonic genius beyond the bounds of the fatherland. Keller is the most distinguished novelist in German literature since Goethe wrote his ‘Wilhelm Meister’ and Kleist his ‘Michael Kohlhaas.’ His work has the freshness and vitality, the human charm, which make it of universal interest. His touch is as firm and sure as it is tender and sympathetic; his technique is that of the realist, but his heart is a poet’s. If his writings won their way slowly, the hold they have at last obtained upon the public is the firmer. Keller has taken his place in the front rank among German writers of fiction in the nineteenth century, and his title is secure.

Gottfried Keller was born at Zürich of humble parentage on July 19th, 1819. While he was still a boy, he heard some say, “The great Goethe is dead;” and ever afterward that name haunted him. He describes finding the fifty volumes of Goethe’s works tied together on his bed; he attacked the knot, and “the golden fruit of eighty years fell asunder.” From that hour he read and re-read Goethe, discovering new beauties with each perusal. Nevertheless he mistook his vocation, and expended much fruitless effort in an attempt to become a landscape painter. Gradually, and only after several years of unhappy struggling, it became clear to him that his talents were a poet’s, not a painter’s; even his sketch-books contained more writing than drawing. His lyric poems and critical essays attracted attention; he received a government stipend which enabled him to study at the University of Heidelberg. In 1850 he went to Berlin, and spent several years in poverty and obscurity. He wished to become a dramatist, but of his dramatic plans none was ever executed. Instead there appeared a new volume of poems, and in 1854 his first great novel, ‘Der Grüne Heinrich’ (Green Henry). This autobiographic romance had cost him five years of almost reluctant effort; for in it he lays bare the “truth and poetry” from his own life. The central theme is practically the same as that of ‘Wilhelm Meister’: it is the story of a young man’s mistake in the choice of a profession; of his misdirected efforts, and his intellectual growth. With fineness of observation and fullness of poetic fancy Keller has told the tale of his own artistic and religious development and mental struggle. This novel received a thorough revision in after years, and was republished in its new form in 1879. The author burned all the unsold copies of the first edition.

But the work upon which Keller’s fame most securely rests is the collection of tales bearing the title ‘Die Leute von Seldwyla’ (Seldwyla Folk): “The immortal Seldwylars,” Paul Heyse called them. These tales have no other connection with one another than this, that they all treat of the simple country people who dwell in the imaginary but typically Swiss village of Seldwyla. So faithfully realistic is the delineation of Swiss character that many of Keller’s countrymen remonstrated against this frank exposure of their national foibles; but this realism is realism with a soul, and over all these delightful pages plays the fancy of a true poet, with his genial humor and loving insight into the human heart. No short story in German literature surpasses in beauty, pathos, and tragic significance the famous tale of ‘Romeo and Juliet of the Village.’ In it are reproduced in humble bucolic surroundings the conditions which brought about the tragedy in Verona. Two peasants are rival claimants for a strip of land; one has a son, the other a daughter: these love each other, are united; but, conscious of the hopelessness of their situation, they go to death together. In ‘The Smith of his Own Fortunes’ satirical humor prevails, but not without sympathy and an ultimate human reconciliation. But few of these tales have been done into English, and yet they are among the most finished and delicate bits of short-story telling in modern literature.

With the appearance of these volumes Keller’s fame became established; and when in after years he returned to Zürich he was at least “a writer,” he said, “even though an insignificant one.” In 1861 he received the post of secretary for the Canton Zürich, and for fifteen years faithfully performed the duties of his office. The position was no sinecure, and left him little leisure for literary work. Nevertheless he had written a few tales and poems, and after his retirement from office he devoted himself diligently to literature. A volume of legends had appeared in 1872; in 1876 came two volumes of Swiss tales, entitled ‘Zürich Stories,’ and others appeared in 1881 with the title of ‘Das Sinngedicht’ (The Epigram). His latest important work was the less satisfactory, satirical novel of ‘Martin Salander,’ published in 1886. It has the qualities of truth and sincerity; but as he said himself, it is deficient in beauty.

Keller was an extremely modest man, and under a bluff exterior was concealed a shy nature. He was surprised at his own literary eminence; and when upon the occasion of his seventieth birthday, for which his distinguished countryman Böcklin designed the medallion, all Germany did him homage, he was deeply touched, and thought too much praise had been bestowed upon his “yarns.” He died in the fullness of his fame, on July 15th, 1890.