The year was 1919. Herman Hesse already published four novels. His fifth novel, Demian, would be published using a pen name, Emil Sinclair. Sinclair would go on to win the Theodore Fontane Prize for Best Debut Novel of the Year for Demian. Hesse had no choice but to claim authorship or face potential scandal for wining an award for which he was quite clearly not eligible.
And just what it about the first novel of “Emil Sinclair” that was deemed award-worthy? Perhaps the semi-autobiographical tale of a young man in the decade before the outbreak of the Great War in Europe launching upon an odyssey to discover the true essence of his own identity touched a brittle nerve in a Germany faced with the task of doing the very same thing following the horror and humiliation losing that war.
That this process of learning takes the main character through an education process that includes long philosophical discussions with an alienated church organist steeped in theories of a social thinker who was about to become a bigger influence than ever in certain quarters of post-war Germany: Friedrich Nietzsche. Important to note, however, is that Demian is also exposed to an even greater degree to ancient Gnostic religious texts and, even more importantly, the psychological theories of Jung.
The choice of using a pen name and the subsequent success enjoyed by novel published under that name connect two distinct phases of the career of Herman Hesse which are bridged by a completely different phase. The pen name was an attempt to attract readers to the writing of an author who had fallen seriously out of favor after a series of setbacks. An essay voicing a negative view toward aggressive militaristic engagement during the Great War put him outside the political mainstream of Germany. Then, in quick succession followed personal tragedies including the death of his father, the serious illness of his son and his wife’s advancing schizophrenia.
In the meantime, Demian had become a true sensation that had made a palpable impact on the consciousness of the country, especially its younger readers. The revelation by Hesse that he was the true author instantly renewed his legitimacy and credibility and launch the second successful period of his writing career.