Henry Lee, the narrator-hero of this translated German classic, got his nickname as a child in school because of his clothing, made by his widowed mother from the green cloth of his dead father's old uniforms. But "Grüner Heinrich" is green in more ways than one. Green is explicitly the color of Hope in this novel by the Swiss writer Gottfried Keller, and Hope is often all that Green Henry has to live on. Green is also symbolic of Nature, of the trees and alpine meadows that sustain Henry's will-to-live; Keller's verbal evocations of evergreen Nature in his native Switzerland are truly magnificent in German, and they are well rendered by translator A.M. Holt into English. Foremost, nevertheless, is the 'popular' connotation of the color green as symbolic of naive inexperience, the meaning expressed by the slang word "greenhorn". And 'ach du lieber!', is our Henry ever a greenhorn! He's green as a boy raised by a doting mother - and as a city boy sent to develop among his sturdier country cousins - and green as a youth who tries to make himself popular by joining in mischief despite feeling guilty, thereby getting himself unfairly expelled from school - green again in his aspiration to become a great artist more or less merely by declaring himself one - and greenest of all in Love. Four, count 'em four!, beautiful and fascinating girl-women are the idols of Henry's worship in the course of this novel. All four are in fact realistically depicted as worthy of some idolization; author Keller should be credited with creating some of the most impressively plausible heroines of 19th C literature. Meanwhile, something in our Green Henry attracts the devotion of each of the four women to him, and yet the relationships are never consummated, either emotionally or physically. Green symbolizes virginity for the young man, also, despite a good deal of understated debauchery in Henry's years as a student in old Nuremburg.
"Grüner Heinrich" is regarded as one of the master works of German fiction. It's included by the redoubtable critic harold Bloom in the "canon of Western classics." If you take this recommendation and read it, assuming you enjoy it, you'll have at least a month to nurture your gratitude toward me; that is, it will take you a month or more to read it. It's very long - 700 pages of small type - and discursive, with as many interpolated tales and fables as Don Quixote. Several lengthy chapters are devoted to Henry's fantastic dreams, surreal and symbolic but not precisely crafted to advance the narrative. The largest part of Henry's narrative of his years in Nuremburg is devoted to the romances of his two closets friends there, misadventures in which Henry himself is only a bumbling sidekick. Honestly, I fear that most 21st C readers will be patience-challenged by Keller's placid, philosophical, parenthetical discourse. And yet, this is a great book. It's precisely "the still water that runs deep." It has integrity above all. Though Henry is a greenhorn and a bit of a fool throughout, his constant introspection sculpts as complete a portrayal of a human personality as any in literature.
The events of author Gottfried Keller's early life coincide with Henry Lee's in many particulars, but 'Green Henry" is not merely an autobiographical novel. Keller was a quirky fellow - frail, depressive, withdrawn, not much liked, with a weakness for prolonged drinking bouts. His character Henry shows the optimistic resilience of green willow. One could speculate that Keller portrayed himself more as he wished to be than as he knew he was. In any case, he chose to shape his character's 'autobiography' as fiction and as the embodiment of his philosophical meditations about religion, duty, morality, and civil society. Keller was himself a disciple of the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, whose influence in the mid-19th C was enormous. Feuerbach was a Hegelian; he's considered the most important transmitter of Hegelian though to Karl Marx, but very little of his thought was related to economics. Feuerbach scandalized his contemporaries by dismissing the idea of human immortality. In the novel Grüner Heinrich, the fourth of Henry's feminine idols becomes the spokeswoman for Feuerbach's ideas about religion and mortality, ideas that Henry adopts with his usual equivocating innocence.
A good reason to read this vast novel is that it depicts the 'intellectual grid' of European (specifically German) culture during the first half of the 19th C, an era that clung to ancient myths and to Enlightenment ideals equally, without noting how irreconcilable they were. Henry's Nuremburg was still the Goliardic medieval world of 'The Student Prince". Henry himself blunders into a duel. The folk festivals of Switzerland and Germany that Keller describes were still vividly part of the life of real communities, and not anachronistic recreations for tourists. There were no tourists! Let me tell you, an absence of tourists has by now become a rare pleasure of life in Europe. Keller's descriptions of now-extinguished festivals and folkways are lively and colorful, enjoyable enough to pay the reader for any impatience with Henry's philosophical digressions.
Grüner Heinrich is a 'Bildungsroman' in structure -- a 'novel of education' of the genre launched by Goethe in his masterpiece "Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre". There are enough similarities between Green Henry and Wilhelm Meister to make it clear that Keller intended his novel as a philosophical sequel to Goethe's. The first third or so of Green Henry was drafted as a complete novel, ending with Henry's suicide in imitation of Goethe's hero Young Werther. That draft was not well received by anyone, but some five or six years later, Keller rewrote and expanded his book into the current epic tale. The division is still obvious; the story leaps unapologetically from Henry's adolescence in Switzerland to his futile and frustrating career as a would-be artist in Germany. The suicide was cancelled, thank you! Henry does emerge from his bewildered youth - his greenery - as a full-formed human being with realistic goals in life.
My earlier mention of Don Quixote was not completely gratuitous. The 'Bildungsroman' was the literary heir of the Picaresque novel, and our greenhorn knight errant Henry tilts at windmills aplenty in the course of his education.
The "worldview" portrayed in this novel is gone. Extinct. Utterly supplanted. Pre-Darwinian. The religious doubts that Henry experiences are not the same as "we moderns" experience. Henry's world is stable, unchanging, sempiternal, self-maintaining as a Swiss clockwork. Evolution and contingency have no place in it. This may well amount to the best of all reasons for reading Grüner Heinrich, that it richly presents the archaic worldview of Romantic Europe, and thus exposes what a shock, what an earthquake of perception, such a culture must have experienced with the arrival of modernity.