Hermann Hesse Biography

Hermann Hesse Biography

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.


(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 of the will in Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, and from the depth psychology of Freud and Jung, Hesse developed a Romantic individualism akin to modern existentialism—one that escapes the sentimentality of earlier German Romanticism. His writing, confessional and highly autobiographical, is essentially concerned with the development of the individual through what he termed an inward journey.

Hesse’s artistic production was also exceptionally varied. His first book was a collection of lyric poems, and throughout most of his life he continued writing verse—hundreds of lyrics in all. Moreover, he produced essays, articles, book reviews, and short stories in abundance. He mastered watercoloring and illustrated some of his volumes. His major literary achievement, however, lies in the novels and novellas produced during the period spanned by the two world wars, from Demian (1919; English translation, 1923) to Das Glasperlenspiel: Versuch einer Lebensbeschreibung des magister Ludi Josef Knecht samt Knechts hinterlassenen schriften (1943; Magister Ludi, 1949; also as The Glass Bead Game, 1969).

Individual development, Hesse believed, was thwarted by two major forces: nationalism and technology. Because he considered these obstacles to be dehumanizing, Hesse consistently rejected their standardization and regimentation and portrayed characters who transcended them in order to reach the highest level of self-expression. In his early Künstlerromans, such as Klingsor (1920; Klingsor’s Last Summer, 1970), he presents the view that to excel one must escape middle-class conformity through either asceticism or sensuality. Hesse’s protagonists usually engage in these extreme forms of self-denial or self-assertion.

Highly autobiographical and unendingly confessional in form, Hesse’s novels belong to literary genres originating with Jean-Jacques Rousseau in which confession becomes an avenue to self-justification. Yet the prized inner journey implied more than a Romantic celebration of individualism. It meant the development of individual talent and capacity through an effort of will in a Schopenhauerian sense, an essentially existential emphasis. Hesse’s protagonists are engaged in a journey; they are seekers who, unable to control reality outside themselves, strive for individual development, fulfillment, and meaning.

Accompanying this individual quest centered in the self is a set of assumptions about the outside world. Hesse’s orientalism treats Asia as a source of renewal, both personal and spiritual, but it also reflects his view that Europe is in decline because of spiritual and intellectual bankruptcy. This theme surfaces boldly in Klingsor’s Last Summer. In an almost Spenglerian pessimism, Hesse endorses the decline of Europe, and much of his later fiction is influenced by this perceived reality. Often presenting external decline through expressionistic techniques, Hesse has his protagonists view external events as grotesquely distorted and chaotic. Avenues of their escape are isolation, which Siddhartha attempts; sensuality, Harry Haller’s means in Der Steppenwolf (1927; Steppenwolf, 1929); or projection into the future where an ideal society replaces a failed one, as in The Glass Bead Game. Hence, the plight of the individual soul enmeshed in a declining civilization sets the conflict for the major prose fiction.

Hesse’s first novel, a Bildungsroman, Peter Camenzind, a story of adolescent friendship and poignant young love based upon his own early life and...

(The entire section is 2606 words.)