Hermann Hesse was born in the little south German village of Calw on July 2, 1877. Situated on the edge of the Black Forest, Calw was to become the colorful setting of much of Hesse's writing. Hesse was the son of Johannes Hesse, who had been a missionary for the Lutheran Pietists to India. Forced to return to Europe after a short stay in India, Johannes worked in, and helped establish, a religious publishing house in Calw. Hermann's maternal grandfather, Hermann Gundert, also spent a major portion of his life as a missionary in India, acquiring a huge library of books about Eastern thought and becoming a master of Indic languages.
As a child, Hesse was greatly subjected to religious influences, both to the narrower views of Protestantism and to the wider scope of the Eastern religions and philosophies. Both views never left him; they became an integral part of his thought. His house in Calw was frequently the scene of visitations from foreigners, ranging from Buddhists to Americans. At his disposal was his grandfather's rich library. Hesse himself much later stated that all of his writing was religious in nature, not in the orthodox sense, but in a larger, universal way.
It was established early that Hesse would become a theological student. While showing intellectual promise as a student, young Hesse disliked school, especially the rigidity and the stifling of creativity of the German educational system of his time. His grades were never outstanding, and he disliked his teachers. He once stated that he had had only one teacher whom he liked. His reaction to this oppressive atmosphere is also reflected in his writings, especially in the bitter attack in Unterm Rad (Beneath the Wheel). By the age of thirteen, Hesse had decided that he was going to be a poet. Great stress caused him to flee the Maulbronn Seminary, the setting of Mariabronn in Narcissus and Goldmund. He became so despondent that he considered suicide and purchased a pistol.
Causing great concern to his parents, Hesse was subjected to a variety of remedies for his rebelliousness. These ranged from a school for the disturbed to an attempt at exorcism. In 1894, Hesse became an apprentice in Perrot's tower clock factory in Calw. Needless to say, this was not satisfactory to him. Some progress was made in 1895, when he became an apprentice in the book trade in Heckenhauer's bookstore in Tubingen, although Hesse was still a rebel. A few years later, he served in a similar capacity in Basel, from where he traveled through Switzerland and to Italy.
After writing a few minor works, Hesse achieved recognized literary success in 1904 with the publication of Peter Camenzind, a very popular book written in the tradition of the German Romanticists. In the same year, he married Maria Bernoulli, and the couple took up a secluded residence at Gaienhofen, where Hesse became a free lance writer and a contributor to a number of journals.
Hesse's second successful novel, Unterm Rad (Beneath the Wheel), was published in 1906, followed by Gertrud in 1910 and Rosshalde in 1914. The latter work strongly depicts the plight of the temperamental artist and his wife. Meanwhile, Hesse had become associated with the pacifist Romain Rolland and had been writing numerous essays against the growing nationalism of the German people. Many of these writings have been translated into English and are available in a volume entitled If the War Goes On . . . The publication of Knulp in 1915 includes three stories about the life of a colorful vagabond.
A turning point in Hesse's life occurred in 1916, when his father's death, coupled with the illnesses of his son Martin and his wife, forced Hermann to seek refuge in a Lucerne sanatorium. His condemnation by his native Germany for his pacifistic views probably compounded his already serious problems. In 1916–17, Hesse had more than seventy sessions with a psychologist, J. B. Lang, who was a disciple of the famous Carl Gustav Jung. Supposedly these were more friendly conversations than attempts at serious psychoanalysis. The result was favorable for Hesse and of great importance to his future writings. The works following this period, beginning with Demian, cannot be fully understood without recognition of the Jungian influence. Following Demian were Marchen (reprinted in English as Strange News from Another Star) and Klingsor's Last Summer, a collection of three excellent novellas, originally containing Siddhartha. At the same time, Hesse became coeditor of the newspaper Vivos Voco and decided to move, alone, to Montagnola. In 1920, he produced Blick ins Chaos, which was referred to by T. S. Eliot in The Wasteland.
Hesse divorced his wife and adopted Swiss citizenship in 1923. He then married Ruth Wegner the following year. The years 1924-27 saw the publication of some of Hesse's best autobiographical pieces, namely Kurgast (1924) and Die Nurnberger Reise (1927), as well as his second divorce, which is reflected upon in Der Steppenwolf (1927). Narcissus and Goldmund was published in 1930, and shortly thereafter Hesse married Ninon Dolbin, who was to remain his companion until his death. In 1932, Hesse published Die Morgenlandfahrt (The Journey to the East). The only other major novel to be produced was The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi), which was published in 1943. Hesse was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1946.
During the course of World War II, Hesse was to relive the nightmare of World War I. Once again he became the subject of German ostracism because of his anti-nationalistic views. Following the war, however, his writings again became popular in Germany and have remained so until relatively recent times. After receiving many literary honors, Hermann Hesse died in seclusion of a cerebral hemorrhage in Montagnola on August 9, 1962.
Hesse's works have long enjoyed popularity outside of Germany, especially in southern Europe and Latin America. Indeed, of twentieth-century German writers, only Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka have been written about more than Hesse. However, Hesse remained almost virtually unknown in the United States until the 1960s. Only a handful of his works had been translated into English, and some of those had been very poor translations. Very few critical articles or references appeared in literary publications prior to the Nobel Prize of 1946. For a short time afterwards, his name was mentioned more frequently and some worthwhile critical material appeared. Largely though, Hesse was known only to a handful of individuals on college campuses. Hesse himself doubted greatly that he would ever receive popular recognition in the English-speaking world, particularly the United States.
However, Hesse has been worshiped by many college students who have made him a cult hero. Siddhartha and Demian, particularly, can be found in the curricula of some of the more progressive high schools. Ironically, Siddhartha is, among other things, one of the greatest criticisms of formal education that one could read, which is one aspect that makes it so appealing to today's readers.
The reasons for Hesse's popularity stem from several factors. Initially, his wide-spread acceptance in the United States was due to the youth culture which identified with his alienated protagonists. Both a rock group and a California discotheque owed their names to Steppenwolf, which became a virtual Bible for the 1960s counter-culture. Also, a record album was entitled "Abraxas," after the Gnostic deity who is an integral part of Demian. Youths frequently heard themselves echoed when Harry Haller condemns pre-World War II German society for building a dehumanizing military industrial complex and for destroying nature. When Haller uses drugs to achieve a state of intense awareness, they identified again, not realizing how little this aspect has to do with the essence of the novel. The 1960s generation, a great many of whom were witnesses to their country's involvement in what they considered to be an unjustifiable, immoral war (Vietnam), found a spokesman against chauvinistic nationalism in Hesse.
Hesse himself said that each of his writings was, in a sense, a spiritual autobiography. From the Nietzschean view of Demian, which questions the "herd instinct" and the "mass morality," to the concept of individual sacrifice for the sake of helping another person achieve a higher level of existence as depicted in the futuristic Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi), inspiration has been given and guidelines established.
Hesse has been both highly praised and severely condemned. Whether he is a saint or whether his writings are just another fad certain to be forgotten remains to be seen. Because he deals with very real issues, he is rarely spoken of objectively. Because of conflicts in personal viewpoints, much of the intrinsic merit of his works has been neglected and not examined closely enough by both those of the "establishment" and those who seek to identify with Charles Reich's concept of "Consciousness III."