Hermann Hesse

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At a Glance

Hermann Hesse, one of Germany’s most celebrated writers, had a troubled childhood, bouncing from school to school and fighting with his parents. The culmination of these problems occurred in 1892 when he attempted suicide and was placed in two separate mental institutions. He tried several apprenticeships before finally working in a bookshop and beginning his own writing career. Hesse first composed poetry and later moved to writing novels and essays. Always suspicious of authority, Hesse tried to support artists who were persecuted by the Nazis, but he had to endure criticism for not being vocal enough for or against either side. Hesse’s novels, mainly Steppenwolf and Siddhartha, gained popularity in the 1960s because many saw them as aligning with counter-culture values.

Facts and Trivia

  • The rock band Steppenwolf is named after Hesse’s famous book about spiritual crisis.
  • Hesse is the most popular German language author in Japan. This is most likely because an educational minister in Japan once assigned students studying German to read a Hesse novel. The practice stuck.
  • Hesse received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946 for his last major work, The Glass Bead Game.
  • In 1933, Hesse helped Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann go into exile in an attempt to thwart Hitler’s anti-art campaign.

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Biography

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Writing in the tradition of Romantic individualism, Hesse produced novels and novellas that brought him literary acclaim. Highly autobiographical and confessional, his prose works employ modernist thought and aesthetic principles to narrate the development of existential protagonists.

Early Life

Hermann Hesse was born on July 2, 1877, in Calw, a village on the edge of Germany’s Black Forest. His parents, Johannes and Marie (née Gundert), were German Pietists, and his maternal grandfather was a distinguished Indologist. In Hesse’s youth, the family lived for six years in Basel, Switzerland, where his father taught at a mission school. His own youth and schooling were marked by years of unhappiness, primarily because of conflict with his father and other authority figures. After experiencing severe depression in a Protestant seminary at Maulbronn, he entered a Gymnasium but remained only briefly. Subsequent service as an apprentice in a tower clock factory in Calw was similarly dispiriting. Employment in bookstores, first in Tübingen and later in Basel, enabled him to develop his intellect through reading. With the success of his first novel, Peter Camenzind (1904; English translation, 1961), he resolved to devote his life to literature.

The personal and psychological strife and unhappiness of his early life persisted through most of his writing career, at least until his third marriage, when he was in his fifties. Following the failure of his first marriage in 1916, he suffered a mental breakdown. Disillusioned with German militarism even before World War I, he became a Swiss citizen in 1923. After settling in Montagnola, Switzerland, in 1919, and particularly after his marriage to Ninon Auslander in 1931, his life assumed a measure of stability.

Life’s Work

Hesse’s literary career spanned more than six decades, and over that period he drew his ideas, themes, and narrative techniques from rich and eclectic sources. Among German Romantic writers, the influence of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Jean Paul, Novalis, and others was so extensive that critics have placed Hesse in the tradition of Romantic individualism. Among philosophers, Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Friedrich Nietzsche impressed him most deeply. Further, he was steeped in Eastern philosophy and religious thought, including classical Chinese poets, the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita. The historian Jakob Burckhard, the psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, and the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevski also exerted strong influence on his thought and art. From the individualism of the Romantics with their emphasis on intuition, from the psychology...

(The entire section is 4,503 words.)