Gottfried Keller (18191890). The Banner of the Upright Seven.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
GOTTFRIED KELLER was born in Zurich on July 19, 1819. His father, who was a turner, died when his son was only five; but his energetic and devoted mother contrived to provide Gottfried with a good elementary education. When he was fifteen he was expelled from school for taking part in a boyish conspiracy against a teacher, and he at once set about becoming a painter. Finding it difficult to obtain proper instruction in Zurich, he went in 1840 to Munich; but though the opportunities of the Bavarian capital were important for his general development, he returned home in 1842 without assurance of making a success in his art. The next six years, spent at home with his mother and sister, saw his gradual turning from painting to literature; and in 1846 he issued a volume of poems to which little attention was paid. When he was twenty-nine, the government of the canton gave him a scholarship of eight hundred francs for foreign study, and with this he went to Heidelberg, where, in spite of the confusion of the revolution of 1848, he made friends of men like Henle the pathologist, Hettner the literary historian, and Feuerbach the philosopher, all of whom had a profound effect upon his thinking. From Heidelberg he went to Berlin, where he hoped to equip himself as a dramatist; and there in 18545 he published his great autobiographical novel, Green Henry. This work was appreciated by his friends and brought him some money, though at the time no very wide reputation, and after six years of semi-starvation in the Prussian capital he again went home to his mothers house. The People of Seldwyla, a collection of admirable short stories, was issued in 1856, but still he made no great popular success.
But at last fortune favored him when, in 1861, he was appointed Clerk of the Canton of Zurich, a position he filled efficiently for fifteen years. In 1872 appeared his Seven Legends, the whimsical humor and mock realism of which brought general recognition. Five years later came the historical stories called Zurich Novels; in 1881 The Epigram; in 1883 Collected Poems, establishing his place as a lyric poet of high rank; and in 1886 Martin Salander, a novel of contemporary Switzerland. His genius was now generally recognized both at home and abroad; and when he died on July 15, 1890, he stood at the head of German letters. He was never married.
Keller was a writer of great independence, and cannot be classed with any of the schools. The closeness of his observation and his fidelity in rendering both the good and the bad sides of life ally him with the realists; but his imagination was too much alive to allow of his being properly described by their label. He knew the Swiss of his own time intimately, and he has portrayed them in their homely provincialism as well as in their sturdy self-respect and love of freedom.
The Banner of the Upright Seven, one of the stories from The People of Seldwyla, is an excellent example of the faculty which made him the greatest of German humorists. The story has genuine sentiment, but sentiment restrained as always in his books; it has sympathy for youthful ambition and youthful love, as well as for the political enthusiasm of the delightful old fellows whose name it bears; but both sentiment and sympathy are overshadowed by the rich humor which pervades the whole. Pure Swiss it no doubt is, but its appeal is to all hearts open to wholesome human affection and aspirations.