Hermann Hesse was born in 1877 in the Black Forest region of Germany. Hesse’s family subscribed to Pietism, a Protestant religion that emphasizes heartfelt devotion and charitable activity rather than dogma. Various members of the family had been missionaries in India or religious publishers, and Hesse was expected to continue this religious legacy. He was sent to a monastery but left after a year.
As a youth, Hesse read voraciously and decided to become a writer. After years of struggling to publish his work, he gained acclaim with the novel Peter Camenzind (1904). Hesse became a staunch pacifist; during World War I, he moved to Montagnola, Switzerland, and eventually became a Swiss citizen.
Hesse found fame with the novels Siddhartha (1922), Steppenwolf (1927), and Narcissus and Goldmund (1930), all of which address the split between the world of physical sensation and the world of mental reasoning. Hesse’s primary influences in these novels were German Romanticism, late-nineteenth-century aestheticism, and Indian and Chinese religious philosophy. In his novels, Hesse strove to reconcile the physical and spiritual elements of his characters, whose desires frequently involve transcending the realm of the individual and entering the realm of the universal spirit. The lives of Hesse’s characters are generally uncomfortable, but his prose lends romance to their suffering.
The publication of Steppenwolf in 1927 caused a scandal, as the novel’s candid accounts of the corrupt elements of a city disappointed readers who had become accustomed to Hesse’s highly spiritual works. Critics claimed that the novel was too obviously confessional, as it sprang out of a crisis in Hesse’s own life. He wrote the novel after the failure of his first marriage and the collapse of his brief second marriage. Indeed, Hesse, who was shy and had always felt most comfortable at home, had gone on something of a socializing rampage, frequenting the bars and dance halls of Zurich. He spent most of his days drinking alcohol and most of his nights writing self-pitying poems (written before, but published after, the publication of Steppenwolf). These poems, which offer a painfully honest record of Hesse’s alcoholism, suicidal tendencies, and sense of mental and physical estrangement, serve as interesting companion pieces to the novel.
By the end of 1926, Hesse abandoned his self-indulgent lifestyle and retired to the solitude of his country retreat in Switzerland. Hesse’s work fluctuated widely in popularity during his career and has continued to do so since. His outspokenly pacifist novels were vilified and banned in Nazi Germany but were celebrated after World War II. In America, the Beat generation of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s enthusiastically embraced Hesse’s blend of Eastern philosophy and existentialism. Today, Hesse is acknowledged as one of the most influential German authors of the twentieth century, and he is widely respected for fusing elements of philosophies from around the globe in his work. Hesse’s efforts earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946. He died in 1962 at his home in Switzerland.