Hermann Hesse Biography


Personal Background

Hermann Hesse was born in Calw in the Black Forest in the German state of Wüttenberg on July 2, 1877. His father, Johannes Hesse, was born in Weissenstein, Estonia, and retained Russian citizenship. His mother, Marie Gundert, was born to Pietist missionaries in Talatscheri, India. In 1880, Hesse's family moved to Basle, a city located on the border of Germany, France, and Switzerland. They resided there until 1886, during which time Hesse's father taught at the Basler Mission.

Understanding Pietism, the religion of Hesse's family, is important in order to understand Hesse himself. Both his upbringing and his religious foundation had an impact on his writing later on. Pietism began as a German Lutheran religious movement. Pietists emphasize Christian living. In other words, Pietists are not satisfied simply reading the Bible; instead, they believe the Bible should be experienced. All the Pietist morals, goals, and values are taken directly from biblical scripture, and Pietists must incorporate the biblical principles into their lives. In addition, Pietists resist church practices that emphasize tradition and repetition, rather than spontaneous experience.

Hesse's family expected him to become a Pietist minister, so the Hesse family returned to Calw in 1886. Hesse attended boarding school in Wüttenberg and a grammar school in Göppingen to study and prepare for the Wüttenberg State Examination. Hesse passed the exam and entered the seminary at the Protestant Monastery at Maulbronn. According to Hesse in his 1946 presentation speech for the Nobel Prize, he was a "good learner," but not a "very manageable boy." He went on to say, "[I]t was only with difficulty that I [fit] into the framework of a Pietist education that aimed at subduing and breaking the individual personality."

Hesse left the seminary in 1892 and began working at a variety of odd jobs, including an apprenticeship to a mechanic and positions in several book and antique shops. During this period, Hesse began publishing poetry, articles, and reviews, but he did not gain recognition until the publication of Peter Camenzind in 1904. He married Maria Bernoulli that same year.

Hesse visited India in 1911, and his trip initiated his study of Eastern religions. Hesse was further influenced by Chinese philosophy and his own experiences with psychoanalysis. Hesse moved to Switzerland in 1912, and the stress of his wife's growing mental instability, along with his son's illness, compelled Hesse to continue psychoanalysis treatments.

During World War I, Hesse was labeled a traitor as a result of his antiwar sentiments, anti-propaganda behavior, and pacifist attitude. Hesse separated from his wife in 1919 and moved to the Casa Camuzzi in Montagnola. Hesse and his first wife divorced in 1923. In 1924, Hesse married his second wife, Ruth Wenger.

In 1926, Hesse was elected to the department of creative writing of the Prussian Academy of the Arts. He resigned his position in 1931, stating that he wanted nothing to do with the inevitable propaganda that would come out of the academy during a second war. Hesse and his second wife divorced in 1927. He married his third wife, Ninon Dolbin, in 1931.

Hesse died of a cerebral hemorrhage on August 9, 1962.

Career Highlights

Hesse's novel Peter Camenzind, published in 1904, follows the protagonist's journey through adolescent angst to maturation as a writer. This novel was the first of Hesse's works to gain recognition.

Rosshalde, published in 1914, reflects Hesse's own marital tensions as it describes the struggles of an artist torn between familial responsibility and spiritual growth.

Demian, published in 1919, depicts the transformation of the protagonist from an innocent school boy to a criminal. The protagonist rebels against custom and authority on a dark journey toward self-discovery.

Siddhartha, published in 1921, focuses on the trials and obstacles of Gautama Buddha. This novel is the culmination of Hesse's studies of Eastern philosophy.

Steppenwolf, published in 1927, portrays one man's struggle to deal with a divided society and a divided self.

In 1934, Hesse joined the Swiss Club of Poets due to increasing criticism and threats from the Nazi regime. In 1935, the German government forced Hesse's publishing house, S. Fischer, to split. Hesse's work could not be published outside of Germany because the Nazis would not grant international publishing rights. Hesse's work was banned in Germany from 1939 to 1945.

The Glass Bead Game, published in 1943, describes the life of a protagonist living within a utopian society founded on synthesis and scientific arts.

In 1946, Hesse was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the German ban on his works was lifted. He was awarded the Peace Prize of the German Bookdealers in 1955.