Jakob Senn’s 200th birthday – He was too smart for school – but successes came late – Culture


Jakob Senn led a life full of hurdles – and in the end he still fulfilled his dream of becoming a writer. The new edition of his life novel “Hans Grünauer” is now reminiscent of Senn’s life.

Jakob Senn was trained after just five years. The teacher no longer knew what to do with the child who was hungry for education. Little Jakob was also needed to work at the loom at home.

Senn was born in Fischenthal in 1824 into a family of home weavers and small farmers. In this uneducated environment, it was difficult for little Jakob to pursue his passion: reading.


Jakob Senn’s birthplace in the hamlet of Ennerlenzen Fischenthal around 1900, before it fell victim to a fire in 1906.

Walter Sprenger Collection, Bauma

“Apart from wall calendars and devotional reading books, books were practically inaccessible in the countryside at that time,” says Matthias Peter. The theater maker and journalist is distantly related to Jakob Senn and has examined his life. He is fascinated by his fate, “a young man hungry for education who, against all odds, becomes a writer.”

Sleepless nights

Jakob Senn comes up with an idea to get books in order to educate himself: he shyly knocks on the door of the village pharmacist to borrow some. Later he can order books from a library and an antiquarian bookstore in Zurich. During the day he works at the loom or in the field. He reads books late in the evening and early in the morning. “He goes without precious sleep for years,” says Matthias Peter.

A man sits at a desk and holds a fountain pen over an inkwell.  In the background a picture of Gottfried Keller.


The exhibition curator and actor Matthias Peter writes a letter to the national poet Gottfried Keller in the play “Jakob Senn – The ‘Green Heinrich’ von Fischenthal” in the role of the author Jakob Senn.

Timon Furrer

Reading comes with a passion for writing. Little by little, Senn found like-minded people – also thanks to political developments. The founding of the Swiss federal state in 1848 led to a flood of reading and educational clubs in the countryside.

The novel of life

Jakob Senn made the jump to Zurich at the age of 32. He works in an antiquarian bookstore and begins to publish as a writer. He describes his rocky path in his novel “Hans Grünauer”. Senn has a sharp pen. He portrays people in entertaining anecdotes and recounts his winding educational path as an autodidact.

The rising story “Hans Grünauer” has been republished to mark Jakob Senn’s 200th birthday. Matthias Peter wrote the afterword. “The novel is his main work, which can be read again today without any compromises,” he says.

The novel failed to achieve success during Senn’s lifetime. It was only published after his death and for a long time was only read as a document of folklore interest. But “Hans Grünauer” has literary value: Senn knows how to use language and creates vivid images and suspense.

Tragic ending

The novel ends with the decision to live as a freelance writer. He doesn’t tell you how Jakob Senn’s life continues. Unexpected twists follow: Jakob Senn marries and takes over a business in St. Gallen with his wife. He made a mistake and the family emigrated to Uruguay. Ten years later he returns to Switzerland. Another plan failed, and at the age of 55, Jakob Senn went to the Limmat.

Matthias Peter suspects that Jakob Senn failed because of his own goals. «Instead of being content with being an antiquarian bookshop, he wanted to become a freelance writer. The torn between modesty and lofty plans has probably worn him down over the years.”

It is the fate of someone who lived in the wrong place at the wrong time. But it is also the story of how, with enormous willpower, you can achieve the almost impossible.

Radio SRF 2 Culture, Context, February 9, 2024. 6:05 a.m.;

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