Authors: Hermann Hesse

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

German-Swiss Nobel Prize–winning author and poet.

July 2, 1877

Calw, Germany

August 9, 1962

Montagnola, Switzerland


Hermann Hesse (HEHS-uh), one of the most popular novelists of twentieth century world literature, was the second of six children of Johannes Hesse and Marie Gundert, who were extremely religious former missionaries to India. In his youth, he was a sensitive, headstrong child who rebelled against schooling and a trade until he was permitted to serve as a book dealer’s apprentice in Tübingen. There he found time to read widely, educating himself in the process, and to write his own poetry and prose. Because much of Hesse’s fiction derives directly from his own experiences and is confessional in nature, scholars have identified three distinct stages in his development

The first phase, clearly seen in the characters from Hesse’s early works, is that of the sensitive loner who is comfortable only when he is alone in nature. Representative of this period is the titular figure in Peter Camenzind, a talented but introspective lad from a remote village who seeks fame and fortune in the sophisticated big city; in the end, sadder but wiser, he returns to his native village to work for the good of his family and neighbors in a timeless, natural setting.

Hermann Hesse, Nobel laureate in Literature 1946



By Nobel Foundation [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

With the success of this first novel in 1904, Hesse gained financial independence and the courage to marry. Soon after establishing residence in a small town on Lake Constance, he grew restless; a sentimental journey to India was aborted as a result of climate and dysentery before he could set foot on the continent. By 1912, Hesse and his growing family had resettled in Switzerland, where he received Swiss citizenship eleven years later and lived for the rest of his life.

Hesse grew disenchanted with the patriotic posturing at the outset of World War I, and in the ensuing years his increasingly pacifist stance drew sharp criticism. By 1916, his father’s death, family crises (eventually resulting in divorce), and accumulating despair because of the war caused a mental breakdown. As a result of psychiatric therapy Hesse freed himself from previous constraints, both social and familial. Emulating the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, he repudiated the mentality of the bourgeois "herd" and set out to establish a new system of values.

The main characters in his novels from this second period are, like Hesse, actively seeking a new way of life. An entire generation of young people, disheartened after the war, seized on Hesse’s symbol of resurrection in Demian in 1919, which promised a new society arising phoenixlike from the ashes of the old. Novels on similar themes followed in rapid succession, among them Siddhartha, in which the title character quests for individual perfection in distant India, and Steppenwolf, in which Harry Haller seeks meaning in the midst of the Jazz Age. In the medieval tale of Narcissus and Goldmund, Hesse’s split personality is assigned to two separate but related characters who represent the contemplative and the active life. The novels written during this ten-year period remain Hesse’s most popular and also his most critically acclaimed.

The overnight success of Demian in 1919 brought Hesse renewed popularity and made him one of the most influential European writers of the 1920s. Divorce and remarriage offered little personal consolation, however, until his life improved with his third marriage in 1931 to Ninon Dolbin and the beginning of his monumental The Glass Bead Game. During the rise of the National Socialist Party in the 1930s, however, Hesse’s pacifism and failure to support German nationalism once again made him a target for public vilification. This time, he withdrew in silence to his Swiss mountaintop.

The final stage in Hesse’s maturation is often overlooked, since it is depicted in two works that lack external action and vivid characterization, The Journey to the East and The Glass Bead Game. In these last works, Hesse reconciles the active and the contemplative life, renouncing his preoccupation with self in favor of selfless, active service to a greater cause. Hesse’s approach was well-timed for a generation of youth who had just served Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, or Emperor Hirohito selflessly, actively, and unquestioningly, thus precipitating yet another world war.

By 1945, Hesse’s literary productivity had essentially ceased. He continued a voluminous correspondence, prepared new editions of his earlier poetry, and lived as a grand old statesman following the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946. Amid honors, awards, and diminishing popularity, Hesse died from leukemia in 1962.

Hesse’s works experienced a curious kind of "tidal" reception throughout the twentieth century; three distinct waves of popularity can be charted during his lifetime and yet another after his death. His initial popular acclaim resulted from his early neo-Romantic works, such as Peter Camenzind, Beneath the Wheel, Rosshalde, and Knulp. Citing these works, critics have recurrently criticized Hesse as being a shallow writer, appealing only to immature readers or social misfits; much of this criticism was inextricably linked to his later pacifism and neutrality. His success with the major novels of the 1920s marks yet another burst of popular attention, which was again eclipsed by rejection (and his self-imposed silence) during the Nazi years. Following the moral and social collapse of the Third Reich, Hesse became revered as an elder spokesman who stood for integrity and a meaningful purpose in life. Yet, within ten years, he was again forgotten. Ironically, after his death Hesse’s entire oeuvre was rediscovered during the late 1960s, granting him posthumous vindication through an extensive and enthusiastic world readership. Later critical investigations of his novels also enhanced Hesse’s reputation as an artist and recognized his daring experiments in prose fiction.

Author Works Long Fiction: Peter Camenzind, 1904 (English translation, 1961) Unterm Rad, 1906 (The Prodigy, 1957; also known as Beneath the Wheel) Gertrud, 1910 (Gertrude and I, 1915; also known as Gertrude, 1955) Rosshalde, 1914 (English translation, 1970) Knulp: Drei Geschichten aus dem Leben Knulps, 1915 (Knulp: Three Tales from the Life of Knulp, 1971) Demian, 1919 (English translation, 1923) Klingsors letzer Sommer, 1920 (Klingsor’s Last Summer, 1970; includes the three novellas Klein und Wagner, Kinderseele, and Klingsors letzter Sommer) Siddhartha, 1922 (English translation, 1951) Der Steppenwolf, 1927 (Steppenwolf, 1929) Narziss und Goldmund, 1930 (Death and the Lover, 1932; also known as Narcissus and Goldmund, 1968) Die Morgenlandfahrt, 1932 (The Journey to the East, 1956) Das Glasperlenspiel: Versuch einer Lebensbeschreibung des Magister Ludi Josef Knecht samt Knechts hinterlassenen Schriften, 1943 (Magister Ludi, 1949; also known as The Glass Bead Game, 1969) Short Fiction: Eine Stunde hinter Mitternacht, 1889 Hinterlassene Schriften und Gedichte von Hermann Lauscher, 1901 Diesseits: Erzählungen, 1907 Nachbarn: Erzählungen, 1908 Umwege: Erzählungen, 1912 Aus Indien, 1913 Am Weg, 1915 Schön ist die Jugend, 1916 Märchen, 1919 (Strange News from Another Star, and Other Tales, 1972) Piktors Verwandlungen: Ein Märchen, 1925 Die Nürnberger Reise, 1927 Kleine Welt: Erzählungen, 1933 Stunden im Garten: Eine Idylle, 1936 Traumfährte: Neue Erzählungen und Märchen, 1945 (The War Goes On, 1971) Späte Prosa, 1951 Beschwörungen, 1955 Gesammelte Schriften, 1957 Stories of Five Decades, 1972 Poetry: Romantische Lieder, 1899 Unterwegs: Gedichte, 1911 Musik des Einsamen: Neue Gedichte, 1915 Gedichte des Malers, 1920 Ausgewählte Gedichte, 1921 Krisis, 1928 Trost der Nacht: Neue Gedichte, 1929 Vom Baum des Lebens, 1934 Neue Gedichte, 1937 Die Gedichte, 1942 Späte Gedichte, 1946 Poems, 1970 Nonfiction: Boccaccio, 1904 Franz von Assisi, 1904 Zarathustras Wiederkehr: Ein Wort an die deutsche Jugend von einem Deutschen, 1919 Blick ins Chaos, 1920 (In Sight of Chaos, 1923) Betrachtungen, 1928 Kleine Betrachtungen, 1941 Krieg und Frieden: Betrachtungen zu Krieg und Politik seit dem Jahr 1914, 1946, revised 1949 (If the War Goes On . . . Reflections on War and Politics, 1971) Hermann Hesse: Essays, 1970 Autobiographical Writings, 1972 My Belief: Essays on Life and Art, 1974 Reflections, 1974 Crisis: Pages from a Diary, 1975 The Seasons of the Soul: the Poetic Guidance and Spiritual Wisdom of Hermann Hesse, 2011 Bibliography Boulby, Mark. Hermann Hesse: His Mind and Art. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1967. An extensive examination of Hesse’s novels from the perspective that there are definable, basic, and yet complex structural patterns revealed in a survey of all the longer works. Underlying the examination is the assertion that the pivotal point of Hesse’s work is his universalization of a personal conflict in artistic from. Provides an in-depth analysis of each of the major novels, including the earlier Peter Camenzind and Beneath the Wheel. Brink, Andrew. Obsession and Culture: A Study of Sexual Obsession in Modern Fiction. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996. Examines sexual behavior in Hesse’s works and others of the twentieth century. Donovan, Josephine. Gnosticism in Modern Literature: A Study of the Selected Works of Camus, Sartre, Hesse, and Kafka. New York: Garland, 1990. A good study of Hesse’s fiction that reveals gnosticism. Field, George Wallis. Hermann Hesse. New York: Twayne, 1970. This work concentrates on the novels, integrating Hesse’s themes with biographical concerns and outlining some of the historical and literary influences on the author, such as the tradition of the Bildungsroman (the novel of personal evolution). Howard, Patricia J. "Hermann Hesse’s ‘Der Dichter’: The Artist/Sage as Vessel Dissolving Paradox." Comparative Literature Studies 22 (1985): 110-119. Argues that "The Poet" foreshadows many of Hesse’s later works, especially the idea of the artist performing a special and magical role in apprehending the unity of nature and spirit, art and science. Lapham, Lewis H. "Magic Lanterns." Harper’s 294 (May, 1997): 11-13. Argues that Hesse’s novel The Glass Bead Game, published in 1943, anticipated the compression of the narrative voice into pithy poetic statement best rendered as metaphor. Hesse proposed a vast inventory of recombinant algorithms, each reduced to the form of a symbolic glass bead, as a means of expressing every noble or worthy thought produced in Western civilization. Mileck, Joseph. Hermann Hesse: Life and Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978. A comprehensive biography of Hesse. Traces and emphasizes the reflective aspects of Hesse’s life and art while delineating the nature of his creative impetus and process. Mileck includes extensive data and background for Hesse’s many Novellen, tales, fantasies, essays, and other genres. Includes a German/English index of Hesse’s works. Richards, David G. Exploring the Divided Self: Hermann Hesse’s "Steppenwolf" and Its Critics. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1996. A study of the seminal novel. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Richards, David G. The Hero’s Quest for the Self: An Archetypal Approach to Hesse’s "Demian" and Other Novels. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1987. This modern analysis applies the theories of Carl Jung to Hesse’s novels. Asserts that Hesse anticipated Jung and that his works serve as "poeticized" models of Jungian concepts. Explores issues central to the author, whose conflicts primarily deal with German dualism and the need for self-integration. Rose, Ernst. Faith from the Abyss: Hermann Hesse’s Way from Romanticism to Modernity. New York: New York University Press, 1965. Takes a biographical approach to Hesse’s works, contending that many of them "read almost like a spiritual autobiography" and that they illustrate "the reality of an existential problem" raised by Hesse in his artistic response to Romanticism. This problem—the nature of reality—emphasizes Hesse’s concern with a means by which to resolve polarities into a coherent worldview. Tusken, Lewis W. Understanding Hermann Hesse: The Man, His Myth, His Metaphor. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998. Tusken examines Hesse’s major novels. Ziolkowski, Theodore. Hermann Hesse. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966. A forty-eight page pamphlet-sized volume that provides a general overview of the author, his works, and his basic themes. Examines Hesse’s split heroes tormented by chronic dualism, the dialectical rhythm of their internal action, and the nature of Hesse’s prose that depicts people’s basic dilemma. Ziolkowski, Theodore, ed. Hesse: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973. The introduction to this volume discusses the phenomenon of "Hessomania," the cultlike response to Hesse’s works, and the crossing-over of Hesse’s icons to the popular culture. Provides an overview of the critical reactions to Hesse’s works while outlining major reasons for their popularity. Includes ten essays by renowned writers such as Martin Buber and Thomas Mann.

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