Hermann Hesse was born in 1877 in the town of Calw, on the edge of Germany’s Black Forest. He grew up in a missionary family whose religious beliefs deeply influenced him. His father was a Pietist-Lutheran who believed that humans are basically evil and need to be disciplined. Hesse’s parents and grandparents had been missionaries in the Far East, however, and the spirituality and literature of Indians, Buddhists, and Middle Eastern cultures balanced Hesse’s father’s teachings.
Family and friends assumed that Hesse would one day become a member of the clergy, but Hesse did not take easily to the traditional teachings of the church. At the urging of his father, he entered the Maulbronn seminary at the age of fourteen but was soon expelled. A dark period followed, and Hesse experienced problems with severe depression and anger. Though he attempted to continue his studies, he had difficulty managing them. His teachers found him to be both precocious and rebellious, and he transferred schools several times, ultimately abandoning high school before finally graduating and returning to Calw. To make ends meet, Hesse took jobs working in bookstores. He spent much of his time at home with his father, where he read many of his grandfather’s books on Eastern religion and philosophy. During this period he began to insinuate himself into Germany’s circles of aspiring authors.
In 1904, at the age of thirty-seven, Hesse published his first novel, Peter Camenzind. A work that featured some unquestionably autobiographical content, Hesse’s debut novel told the tale of an idealistic and driven youth who leaves his home in a Swiss mountain village to become a poet. Hesse’s follow-up novel in 1906, Unterm Rad, also contained many autobiographical elements from Hesse’s own adolescence. Unterm Rad is the story of a schoolboy who feels completely alienated from his contemporaries and flees from his school to travel through a variety of cities.
World War I galvanized Hesse as a political being and as an author. An avowed pacifist, Hesse joined the antiwar movement and plunged himself vigorously into writing antiwar novels and propaganda. He also edited two newspapers for German prisoners of war. But the war also sent him spiraling into a period of self-doubt and personal reflection. All of this took its toll on Hesse’s private life, eventually leading to the breakup of his first marriage. Hesse meditated on the divorce, both indirectly and sometimes very directly, in the novels Knulp and Rosshalde. During this time, Hesse began studying the psychoanalytic works of Sigmund Freud. Excited by this relatively new discipline, Hesse voluntarily became a patient in a mental hospital and underwent psychiatric analysis with Freud’s most famous prodigy, Carl Jung.
In 1919, after the war, Hesse moved permanently to Switzerland and published Demian. The novel, an instant commercial and critical success, reflects Hesse’s fascination with Freud’s conception of the subconscious and Jungian psychoanalysis, particularly Jung’s description of “individuation,” a process through which humans can become whole only by accepting both their conscious selves and their unconscious selves (such as their dreams and imagination). Demian also solidified Hesse’s position as one of Europe’s most eminent antiwar writers.
Throughout this time, Hesse remained interested in Eastern religions. Eager to learn more about new concepts of spirituality, he traveled several times to Asia and the Middle East. His studies eventually led to the publication of Siddhartha in 1922. This novel extended the themes already typical of Hesse’s work: the alienation of man from man, the alienation of man from environment, and the desire for self-knowledge. In Siddhartha, however, Hesse explored these themes through a specifically Buddhist point of view. The novel was a success and quickly became Hesse’s most famous book.
In 1927, Hesse wrote Steppenwolf, another major work that reflected not only Hesse’s own spiritual journey but also a return to his consideration of modern political and social life in Germany. At this time, the seeds of World War II were being planted, and Hesse seemed keenly aware of the dangers of the fascist state about to grip Germany. Steppenwolf examines one man who is torn between his base animal impulses and his desire for social respectability, but it also portrays a Germany torn by anti-Semitism, poverty, and a crushing coldness of the soul.
The Glass Bead Game: (Magister Ludi), Hesse’s last major work, was published in 1943. In this broad-ranging and very long book, which consists of several interconnected novels and novellas, Hesse continued to meditate upon the same themes of pacifism, Eastern religion, and the ultimate goal of self-knowledge and enlightenment. In the opening tale of The Glass Bead Game, Hesse imagines a future in which academics and celibate priests have merged into a single entity, and in which the twentieth century has come to be known in retrospect as the century most famous for war in all of history.
In 1946, Hesse was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. He lived the rest of his life quietly in Switzerland and died in 1962 at the age of eighty-five.