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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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Steppenwolf!