Critical Overview

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On first publication, Steppenwolf was praised highly by German writer Thomas Mann and was a bestseller in Germany in 1927, but in spite of that, the novel met some fierce criticism. Some readers saw in the prominence of sex and sensuality of this novel a betrayal of the asceticism and spirituality of Hesse's previous novel, Siddhartha. Hesse received many indignant letters from readers complaining about the novel's unusual form as well as the perceived immorality of its treatment of sex and its apparent endorsement of drug-taking. Hesse was also accused of being unpatriotic.

In England, the novel received a rather wary reaction from the reviewer for The Guardian newspaper, who objected to the "macabre" quality of the work and suggested "that post-war Germany is becoming rather too morbidly preoccupied with the intellectual insanity, which, according to Herr Hermann Hesse, overtakes human life when 'two ages, two cultures and religions, overlap.'" The reviewer's conclusion is:

The author is at his best when his hero's thwarted idealism breaks into the foreground; for there is something malevolently Shavian about his forthrightness, and his bitter commentary on European civilisation is one of the few sane features of a maniacal book.

In the United States, Steppenwolf achieved far greater success than it did in Germany, although that success was over thirty years in coming. Beginning with the Beat Generation of the late-1950s, Hesse became something of a cult figure, and the Steppenwolf, as an outsider who opposed the materialist culture of his time, became a kind of hero. The popularity of the novel increased during the counterculture of the 1960s. The hippie culture of the young saw in Steppenwolf a guide and a philosophical justification for their experiments in hallucinogenic drugs and their opposition to the Vietnam War, which they viewed as an example of American greed and imperialism. The novel's status was such that a prominent rock band named itself after the title, and even in the early 2000s, there are several theater companies named Steppenwolf, in honor of the "magic theater" of the novel.

Although Hesse's popularity in the United States waned during the 1970s, Steppenwolf remained highly esteemed by literary critics, some of whom regard the novel as Hesse's greatest achievement in the genre. Its form has been compared to that of James Joyce's Ulysses, and it has been interpreted in the light of the psychoanalytic theories of Carl Jung.

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