Although Hesse had published five novels before Demian appeared, this novel was his first to be widely acclaimed in Europe, and it still ranks alongside Siddhartha (1922) and Der Steppenwolf (1927; Steppenwolf, 1929) as one of his most widely acclaimed works. All three of these novels are concerned primarily with the search for identity, and all are loosely autobiographical. Demian received high praise from Thomas Mann when it first appeared; in addition, it was published under the pseudonym Emil Sinclair and received the Fontane Prize of the City of West Berlin for the best first novel of its year. Hesse promptly returned the prize, since he was not qualified according to its terms, and the author’s identity became generally known by 1920.
Although Hesse lived in Switzerland and became a Swiss citizen, his works were published in Germany and distributed by German publishers. Because his works were objectionable to authorities during the Nazi era, his popularity with readers declined. When he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946, it was for his total contribution to literature and not for a particular work. Along with Hesse’s other important novels, Demian was widely read in the United States during the 1960’s, when the hippie movement made Hesse a kind of counterculture hero.
The novel’s appeal diminished somewhat, as did that of Hesse’s works in general, after 1970. It is sometimes regarded as an important example of the existential novel, although it can hardly be said to anticipate later existential philosophy. The idea that an individual develops primarily from within his own psyche, a view that largely ignores heredity and the external influences of education and culture, reflects a limited and extreme legacy of Romanticism. Except for Sinclair, few of the characters are memorable or well-rounded. With its prophecy of change, which envisioned a new Europe and a new European man, the novel proved excessively optimistic.