Herman Hesse published his novel Steppenwolf in 1927, but its mixture of psychological and philosophy about a rebellious non-conformist dropping out of a society he cannot abide would not find a truly appreciative audience for more than three decades. In a testament to just how much of an impact Steppenwolf had on the college students leading the countercultural revolution of the 1960s, one of the defining rock anthems of rebellion in the 1960’s—“Born to be Wild”—was recorded by a band that found success after changing their name from The Sparrows to Steppenwolf.
Steppenwolf at times almost seems to be a novel written in the 1920’s by a time traveler from the 1960’s. The fragment perspective which serves to convey three different states of mind reflecting the the outsider trying to deal with the forces of conformity bearing down upon him speak directly not just the social revolutions in tradition concepts of norms marking the decade, but also touch upon the perceptual dislocations experienced by so many who were experimenting with mind-altering drugs.
At the same time—another reflection of its narrative complexity at presenting multiple perspectives searching for a unity of identity—the 1960’s were in many ways a recurrence of 1920’s social revolutions. The world in which Hesse wrote Steppenwolf was also one in which the older order had been deconstructed by war and rebuilt on the backs of youthful indifference to conventional moral codes of the past. The years following World War I were one of fragmented identities that could not look to the past to establish their meaning yet viewed the future as one too uncertain in light of conflicting reactions go the disintegration of traditionalist modes of thought and behavior. Caught between the breakdown of the old yet comfortably familiar order of the past and exciting but undefined outlook for the future, Hesse created an equally unsteady narrative in which the structure was a perfect means of conveying the internal struggle of its hero to come to grips with what seemed to suddenly be a more complex understanding and expectation of personality.