Biography of Hermann Hesse

Hermann Hesse was born on July 2, 1877, in Calw, Germany. The son of a former Pietist missionary, Hesse was expected to join the ministry and was sent to the Maulbronn seminary in 1892 to complete his education. Three short months after arriving in Maulbronn, Hesse began to suffer from chronic headaches and insomnia. He was promptly sent to the Pastor Christoph Blumhardt at Bad Boll to be cured. The treatment was not very effective, though, as Hesse's unrequited love for the pastor's daughter made him suicidal. He was then sent to a school for the mentally retarded and emotionally unstable for convalescence. After a few months, Hesse was released for good behavior and resumed his education at Cannstadt. At Cannstadt, though, Hesse began to drink, smoke, and incur heavy debts. In 1893, his formal education was at an end and his parents called him back to Calw.

After helping his father in his publishing business, Hesse became an apprentice bookseller in Tubingen, a usual occupation for budding German authors. Hesse's time in Tubingen was characterized by obsessive reading and solitary contemplation. It was during this time in Tubingen that Hesse published his first poems, melancholy neo-Romantic lyrics expressing Hesse's uneasiness with the world. In 1899 Hesse moved to Basel where he worked again as a bookseller. He also did freelance journalism, which inspired his first novel, Peter Camenzind (1904; trans. 1961), the story of a dissolute writer trying to negotiate the difficult space between individualism and collectivism. This was followed by Beneath the Wheel (1906; trans. 1958), a semi-autobiographical novel recounting the story of a precocious youth pressured by overbearing parents and teachers.

During World War I (1914-1918) Hesse moved to Montagnola, Switzerland to join the pacifist Romain Rolland in antiwar activities. His attempts to deal with the despair and disillusion occasioned by the war and the dissolution of his first marriage became the subject of his later fiction. His writings became focused on the spiritual search for new goals and values to replace the no longer valid, traditional ones. Demian (1919; trans. 1923), for example, was strongly influenced by the ideas of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, with whom Hesse had undergone analysis. The book's treatment of the symbolic duality between the dream character Demian and his real-life counterpart, Sinclair, made Hesse famous across Europe and aroused great interest among German intellectuals of the 1920s. After World War I, Hesse was very involved in trying to rebuild German society by educating its youth. To this end, he edited the journal Vivos Voco.

Siddhartha (1922; trans. 1951), Hesse's most popular work, reflects Hesse's long-standing interest in the philosophies of India, which he had visited several times in his youth. It is a short lyric story of an Indian youth's quest for self-actualization. In Steppenwolf (1927; trans. 1929), the artist-hero's double nature?human and wolfish?forces him into a labyrinth of nightmarish experiences. The work symbolizes the split between rebellious individuality and bourgeois convention, and the conflict between self-affirmation and self-destruction.. The same themes are at play in Death and the Lover (1930; trans. 1932; trans. 1968 as Narcissus and Goldmund), the story of the friendship between two medieval priests, one content in his religion and the other still searching for peace. Hesse's last novel, Magister Ludi (1943; trans. 1949; trans. 1969 as The Glass Bead Game), set in a utopian future, is generally seen as a resolution of the author's recurring concerns.

When World War II began, the disillusioned Hesse, who had worked so hard to prevent such an event, withdrew from the public arena, except to denounce the barbarity of the conflict from afar. After the war, though, Hesse's work became popular with younger readers, who identified with the central theme of many of his novels: the conflicts of youth?and especially of creative artists?in search of self. Hesse, who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1946, lived the rest of his life in seclusion in Switzerland where he died on August 9, 1962.


Study Guides on Works by Hermann Hesse