Hermann Hesse Biography


Even though Hermann Hesse belongs to German literature because of his language and culture, his background is quite unlike that of most German authors. This is due in part to the fact that Hesse had missionary parents and grandparents, and is due in part, also, to the fact that his mother and father were, respectively, of southern German plus French-Swiss stock and northern German plus Slavic stock. Born in the Black Forest town of Calw in the German grand duchy of Württemberg in 1877, Hesse was, paradoxically, reared in the severe austerity of Pietist German Protestantism and yet, at the same time, was suffused in the languages, lore, and mysticism of the Far East. The interaction of these elements influenced Hesse's entire life.

To understand Siddhartha, one should continually be aware of the process of synthesis, a mental process of reconciling dualities of antithetical elements. Hesse became aware of this process of unifying opposites during his period of psychoanalysis under Dr. Joseph Bernhard Lang and Lang's mentor, Dr. Carl Gustav Jung. We can see this process at work in his psychoanalytic and post-psychoanalytic literature (including Siddhartha and Steppenwolf), in which the theme of self-quest by resolving chaotic polar opposites appears.

Hermann Hesse's long lifetime (1877-1962) spanned the rise of the post-Bismarkian military-industrial complex, the rise of fanatical right-wing extremism, two traumatic world wars, the plague of Nazism which sent his wife's family to extermination, and the Cold War. Hesse deplored industrialism, right-wing nationalism, and war, and, for these reasons, he left Germany to live in the seclusion of Switzerland from 1912 to his death in 1962.

Hesse's works are difficult, different, and unlike most of the works of Western writers. But Hesse was different, even from the beginning. His father, Johannes Hesse, was a Pietist missionary who renounced his Russian citizenship to become a Swiss citizen and pursue the theological studies at the Basel Mission Society. Like his father, Hermann Hesse was also to renounce his own citizenship — in his case German, which he held from 1891 to 1923 — when he resumed his Swiss citizenship and became naturalized. Both of Hesse's parents had very close contact, through their missionary work, with India and the Far East. His mother was, in fact, born in India, and his grandmother was remembered for her striking collection of Eastern garb, artifacts, and religious objects. Hermann's grandfather was a highly renowned missionary and a veritable walking encyclopedia of Eastern lore and languages. He served as a missionary to the East for thirty years and his home exuded the flavors of Indian, Buddhist, and Mohammedian ceremonies, Oriental songs, and unusual stories and folklore.

Among the significant impressions and experiences of Hesse's early years were those associated with formal education and educational institutions, particularly those in 1892 at the Protestant Theological Seminary at Maulbronn. Hesse's life in school was turbulent. He hated school and was truant and delinquent upon more than one occasion. During his school days, he became conscious of two antithetical worlds — one, the world of mediocrity upheld by the authoritarian establishment of the school system; the other, the world of greatness and genius that this very same establishment supposedly represented.

Already we can see the dichotomy of the mundane bourgeois world and the world of the Immortals. It is in Under the Wheel (1906) that Hesse depicts his vivid memories of unhappy school days in a story concerning a student's processes of mental exhaustion and suicide for which the school system is held blameworthy. After a period of school truancy and delinquency at Maulbronn and at Constance, Hesse worked in a bookstore as an apprentice in Esslingen for only three days and then assisted his father in the Calw publishing house until 1895. He began his career in poetry during the four-year period in Tübingen from 1895 to 1899, during which he held a conventional apprenticeship in the Heckenhauer Bookshop. Romantic Songs was published in 1899.

Between 1899 and 1903, Hesse spent time in Calw and Gaienhofen, but spent his busiest years of this period in Basel. These years are marked by An Hour Beyond Midnight (1899) and Hermann Lauscher (1901) which, like the bulk of Hesse's early works, bear out the German Romantic tradition of lingering melancholy, gentle fantasy, and lyrical beauty. In 1902, Hesse's mother died, and in 1903, he had quit the book business entirely and was devoting his full energies to writing.

The 1904-12 period was a prolific one, during which his writing style hardened into realism. This period was largely spent in Gaienhofen, and it was during this time that Hesse had his first literary success in the novel Peter Camenzind (1904), for which he received his first award. It was in 1904, also, that Hesse married Maria Bernouelli and settled with her on Lake Constance. The year 1905 heralded Hesse's founding of the liberal weekly periodical März, which he edited and to which he contributed liberal material until 1912. Other works of the 1904-12 period include Under the Wheel (1906); volumes of short stories, including In This World and Neighbors (1907, 1909); the novel Gertrude (1910); and a volume of poetry in 1911. During 1911 and 1912, Hesse's long interest in the East resulted in his traveling to India in search of peace and timelessness beyond the world of Western man. He conveyed this mystical vision in two later works, Siddhartha (1922) and The Journey to the East (1931); interestingly, his memoirs of the trip, From India (1913), contain a sense of disillusionment, a feeling that India was already too Westernized. Some critics feel that Hesse had begun to doubt the validity of missionary work, believing that it was Western man's attempt to do away with Eastern gods.

The period between 1912 and 1919 was a grim period in Hesse's life for it included a succession of psychoanalytic sessions. This was the period during which he made Switzerland his permanent home, living in Bern from 1912 until 1919, when he moved to Montagnola, where he lived for the rest of his life. The primary causes of this period's grimness were his father's death (1916), the long illness of his youngest son, his wife's insanity (note Haller's wife in Steppenwolf) and the outbreak of World War I (1914). Hesse was exempted from active combat duty due to his poor eyesight, but he was assigned to the German embassy at Bern to work on behalf of German prisoners of war. It was during these war years that Hesse's pacifism became emphatically articulate and politically committed. As a result of his anti-war articles, some of which are profoundly beautiful, the right-wing press excoriated Hesse and labeled him a traitor. The fever of nationalism was so rampant that many of his subscribers refused to buy or sell his work. The materials of this period include a variety of short stories, poems, and a significant series of articles for German prisoners of war in the newspaper Deutsche Intermerten Zeitung. The horror with which Hesse viewed World War I cannot he underestimated and the amount of his anti-war material is quite large. Anti-war activities included his co-editorship of the pacifist periodical Vicos Voco and his directorship of the bi-weekly Sunday Courier for German Prisoners of War. Notable are his "Friends, Do Not Speak in These Tones!" (1914), the title of which alludes to one of Schiller's poems. It was the impact of these events between 1912 and 1919, especially the war, which drew Hesse to consultations with Dr. Lang and Dr. Jung, two men who were to have a profound synthesizing effect on his mind and art. The works which came as a result of this period of psychoanalysis were considerably more introspective than any of Hesse's previous publications. Works of this period include Rosshalde (1914), Demian (1919), the beginnings of Siddhartha, and a collection of three essays, In Sight of Chaos (1919). Hesse, indeed, had his own glimpse into chaos while undergoing psychoanalysis, and the essays in In Sight of Chaos dealt with the theme of antithetical God/Satanism in man and the idea that irrational depravity lurks beneath the surface of man, collectively as well as individually. Hesse forecast that these irrational forces would rise to the surface and beget the criminality which would beset not only Germany, but mankind as a whole. The outstanding essays in this collection influenced T. S. Eliot's Waste Land (1922), and several references to Hesse appear in Eliot's notes. The most brilliant essay of the three is "The Brothers Karamazov, or the Downfall of Europe."

The years from 1919 to 1962 encompass the time from which Hesse became a naturalized Swiss citizen (1923, also the year of his divorce from his first wife) to the time of his death on August 9, 1962. From 1919 on, he lived in the same secluded villa on the edge of Montagnola in the Ticino valley into which he invited very few visitors. During this time, Hesse embarked on, as it were, a period of self-quest, using certain theories of Jung. The idea of self-quest (through synthesis) begins in Demian and continues through a number of Bildungsroman-type, semi — autobiographical novels; this is the period of Klein and Wagner (1920); Klingsor's Last Summer (1920); the literary experiment dealing with self-exorcism, Steppenwolf (1927); Crisis (1928), the verse counterpart to Steppenwolf; Narcissus and Goldmund (1930); and The Journey to the East (1931). In 1924, Hesse married Ruth Wenger, and after his divorce from her, he married Ninon Ausländer with whom he lived until his death.

After 1931, Hesse's literary output diminished. It was, however, during this time that he wrote a major volume of poetry, published in 1942, completed a new edition of Steppenwolf, containing his own introduction, and spent a decade preparing the masterpiece which accounted largely for his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946, The Glass Bead Game (1943). This period also included War and Peace (1946), a volume of essays; and Letters (1951), a collection of correspondences. During World War II, while Hesse was writing for Will Vesper's Neue Litteratur, he was again reviled by Germany's right-wing press. Hesse, however, was not dealt with as severely as was Thomas Mann, whose books were officially burned and who escaped to the United States; Hesse was discounted as merely a "victim of Jewish psychoanalysis'' and was not granted paper or other materials for publishing. Hesse's wife's family was not so lucky; they were murdered in the extermination camps by the Nazis. The bitterness and shock that resulted remained with Hesse for the rest of his life.

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