Demian Critical Overview
by Hermann Hesse

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Critical Overview

(Novels for Students)

The reception of Hesse’s work by critics, both in Germany and abroad, changed over the course of several distinct phases in his life, as well as after his death. His first novel, Peter Camenzind, was popularly received by German critics and readers. However, during World War I, Hesse’s move to neutral Switzerland and his public denouncement of war and German nationalism caused the German public to regard him as a traitor to his nation, resulting in the denouncement of his writing by most Germany readers and critics.

Demian was first published in 1919, within a year after the end of World War I. In an attempt to evade his declining reputation in Germany, Hesse submitted Demian under the pseudonym Sinclair (the same name as the novel’s protagonist and narrator). The novel immediately struck a chord in German readers, particularly the generation of young men who fought in the war. In a 1947 introduction to Demian, German émigré novelist Thomas Mann described the impact of Demian on German readers at the time of its initial publication:

The electrifying influence exercised on a whole generation just after the First World War by Demian, from the pen of a certain mysterious Sinclair, is unforgettable. With uncanny accuracy this poetic work struck the nerve of the times and called forth grateful rapture from a whole youthful generation.

By the time Hesse publicly claimed authorship of Demian, a year after its initial publication, the groundwork was laid for a revival of his popularity as a German writer.

During the era of Nazi Germany (1933–1945), however, Hesse was again denounced as a traitor to the German people because he criticized nationalism and praised a number of prominent German- Jewish authors. However, Hesse’s outstanding contribution to world literature was given international recognition when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946. In the wake of World War II, with the fall of Nazi Germany and the award of the 1946 Nobel Prize in Literature, Hesse enjoyed another period of renewed interest and serious critical attention on the part of German critics.

Hesse’s fiction enjoyed a popular revival during the 1960s and 1970s, when his impressionistic novels stressing self-reflection and the desire to turn away from conventional religion and thought in order to achieve a sense of deep personal identity resonated with the questioning ethos of the American youth counterculture. Anna Otten explains the phenomenon of three distinct generations that raised Hesse’s status to that of a “cult” figure, explaining that, for German youth after World Wars I and II, as well as for American youth during the 1960s and 1970s, “In each instance it would seem that the cults were formed of young people who, profoundly dissatisfied with the world created by their elders, set out to seek new values.”

In Hermann Hesse (1978), Joseph Mileck described the universal mythical elements of Demian which account for the novel’s popularity among several generations of youth in different...

(The entire section is 741 words.)