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Critical Overview

(Novels for Students)

After the 1904 publication of Peter Camenzind, Hermann Hesse's following grew with each subsequent book and began a popularity that rose and fell dramatically, as it still seems to continue to do. German readers felt comfortable with his traditional stories and poetry, and by 1914, when World War I broke out, he had become a pleasant reading habit. The tide changed with his wartime essays, which disparaged militarism and nationalism and censured Germany. Hesse was quickly reduced to an undesirable draft dodger and traitor. In the sociopolitically chaotic postwar years, the tide turned back. The apotheosizing of the individual and the apolitical gospel of self-knowledge and self-realization presented in Demian (published in 1919) struck a respondent chord in German youth, for whom Hesse became their idol and Demian their bible. But youth's exaltation was short-lived; spreading communism on one hand and budding National Socialism on the other proved to be too enticing. During the Weimar Republic, from 1919 to 1933, Hesse's popularity declined. By the mid 1930s, he was on the blacklist of virtually every newspaper and periodical in Germany. The scholarly interest in him also grew progressively less favorable and politically-tainted negative criticism began to be heard. Hesse now became a rank "Jew-lover" and an example of the insidious poisoning of the German soul by Freud's psychoanalysis. This trend culminated in the strident political and literary rejection of Hesse in Hitler's Germany between 1933 and 1945.

With the collapse of National Socialism in 1945 and Hesse's Nobel Prize in 1946, German critics and scholars, like Germany's reading public, rediscovered the author. For the next decade, he enjoyed both political and literary approval as never before. An undesirable German of questionable literary merits had become a man of insight, foresight, and humanity, an heir to the noblest heritage of the German people, a guide and inspiration for his fellow authors. Yet again, the fickle German literary community switched gears. By the late 1950s, there was a sudden and sharp decrease in scholarly and public interest, and by the 1960s, Hesse was virtually dead as a writer of importance in Germany. But still another wave of interest in Hesse began to spread in Germany in the early 1970s. The occasion of this last...

(The entire section is 730 words.)