Gottfried Keller (18191890). The Banner of the Upright Seven.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
Criticisms and Interpretations
I. By John Firman Coar
SCHILLER has been criticised for letting the Swiss peasants in William Tell speak as they do. What peasants, it is asked, would utter such thoughts? The peasants and simple burghers of the life that Keller studied and depicted is the reply. To a German these peasants seem curiously unreal. But Keller was no idealist when he depicted peasant and burgher life. His people speak as they think and they think as they speak, and they do both as Keller knew them to do it in everyday life. Theirs was the inestimable benefit of democratic government and democratic culture. A compact nationality, self-educated to the duties and privileges of citizenship, leaders in the widest possible dissemination of knowledge as the best guaranty of civic progress and justicecould Keller, a Swiss, depict the life of this people as anything else than a civic and intellectual democracy?
This perspective gives to situations, characters, and actions their true proportions. They are supremely real. His individuals are not equal in civic worth and intellectual capacity, but shade off in wonderfully fine lines, thereby enhancing the effect. Paragons and deep-dyed villains do not challenge our credulity, nor are we wearied by the persistent greetings of familiar faces in new garments. One of the triumphs of Kellers art is the ever new form in which humanity presents itself. And this is the glory of his social democracy, that it recognizes the inviolable right of individuality, since it founds state and society upon the achievement of individual worth. Ethic manhood is something that neither state nor society can impart. It lies in the power of the individual to make or unmake his life, and he alone can solve the secret of his personality. Easier it is for him to do so amid surroundings that open his heart to the great glory of life, but still he alone can do so. That is Kellers doctrine.
Keller grew to manhood in surroundings which were as nearly identical with Schillers philosophic ideal of freedom as human conditions can well be. The Switzerland of his manhood days was the best possible justification of the ideal picture that Schiller drew in William Tell. Therefore the optimism of Keller is so sturdy, so free from sentimentality, and so thoroughly human. His poetry is the noblest consummation of Heines gospel of the divine beauty of life.
Keller believed with all his soul in the self-redemption of society, and used the word society in its broadest signification. And his belief was vitalized by that which he saw in Swiss life. The germs of the past were bearing fruit in the present, and in the present the germs of a future harvest were swelling. He was not one of those complacent optimists who cannot discern with critical eye and whose complacency deadens the best impulses and stands in the way of energetic striving. Swiss life in his stories is by no means a paradise. His words to B. Auerbach (June 25, 1860) betoken the attitude he took toward this life, as they also reveal the genuine democracy of his artistic striving: Here in Switzerland we have, to be sure, many good qualities, and in respect to public character, evidently at present an honest purpose to acquire respectable and inspiriting forms of living, and the people is proving itself plastic (mobile), happy, and buoyant; but all is not gold that glitters by any means. However, I consider it the duty of a poet not merely to glorify the past, but to strengthen the present, the germs of the future, and beautify it in such a manner that people may still be able to believe: yes, we are like that, and that is the course of our life. If poets do this with a certain measure of kindly irony which deprives their productions of false pathos, then I am convinced that the people will come to be in fact and in appearance what it good-naturedly imagines itself to be and what even now it really is in its inmost disposition.From Studies in German Literature (1903).