Sixties Culture in the United States Rediscovers the Works of Hesse Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Expressing timely themes such as individual enlightenment and transcendence, Hermann Hesse’s fiction was widely read by American college students. His work reflected many of the issues and concerns of the turbulent decade of the 1960’s, which included youth disaffection with conformity and materialism and protests against war and social inequality.

Summary of Event

During the 1960’s, students and philosophers, as well as the hippie movement, in the United States rediscovered the works of Hermann Hesse, a German writer of the early twentieth century. His novels expressed rebelliousness and disillusionment with material culture, along with a search for spiritual meaning. Young people looked to Hesse and his works during the 1960’s as they performed their own self-evaluations, rediscovering in his relatively obscure works his philosophies of life. Beneath the Wheel (Hesse) Steppenwolf (Hesse) Siddhartha (Hesse) Demian (Hesse) United States;counterculture Counterculture;literature [kw]Sixties Culture in the United States Rediscovers the Works of Hesse (1960’s) [kw]Culture in the United States Rediscovers the Works of Hesse, Sixties (1960’s) [kw]Hesse, Sixties Culture in the United States Rediscovers the Works of (1960’s) Beneath the Wheel (Hesse) Steppenwolf (Hesse) Siddhartha (Hesse) Demian (Hesse) United States;counterculture Counterculture;literature [g]North America;1960’s: Sixties Culture in the United States Rediscovers the Works of Hesse[06340] [g]United States;1960’s: Sixties Culture in the United States Rediscovers the Works of Hesse[06340] [c]Philosophy;1960’s: Sixties Culture in the United States Rediscovers the Works of Hesse[06340] [c]Literature;1960’s: Sixties Culture in the United States Rediscovers the Works of Hesse[06340] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;1960’s: Sixties Culture in the United States Rediscovers the Works of Hesse[06340] Hesse, Hermann Nietzsche, Friedrich Jung, Carl

Any discussion of Hesse’s American reception during the 1960’s should be prefaced by a brief discussion of the life and major works of the author himself. Hesse was born on July 2, 1877, in Calw, Germany, to missionary parents. A rebellious, solitary, and highly sensitive child, he was a burden to his parents and a horror to school authorities. After years of academic failure, he returned home, and in 1895 he became an apprentice in a Tübingen bookstore. Hesse had been interested in literature since childhood, and his true vocation began to emerge during this time. His early poetry and fiction remained, for the most part, largely derivative of the themes and style of an earlier literary epoch; they were, in essence, the diffused and romantic musings of an estranged and poetic soul. Gradually, however, he began to develop a more realistic narrative style that gave his work a mature tone. Hesse moved to Basel, Switzerland, in 1899 and married in 1904.

In the autobiographical school novel Unterm Rad (1906; The Prodigy, 1957; Beneath the Wheel, 1968), Hesse gave expression to some of the more painful experiences of his tormented adolescent years. The characters of Giebenrath, an introspective and docile student who eventually commits suicide, and Heilner, a rebellious individualist and malcontent, represent aspects of Hesse’s own personality conflicts at the time. Despite the births of two sons, Hesse’s marriage began to fall apart. In 1911, he traveled to several Asian countries. In 1912, he and his family moved to Bern. His unhappy married life, the death of his father in 1916, and the outbreak of World War I cast Hesse into a deep depression. He subsequently underwent psychoanalysis with a doctor who had been a student of the famous Carl Jung, later undergoing therapy with Jung himself.

Like many of his contemporaries at this time, Hesse was influenced by the ideas of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. His experiences with Nietzsche and with Jungian psychoanalysis found expression in the novel Demian (1919; English translation, 1923). He used the same technique employed in Beneath the Wheel, that of having two separate characters express dimensions of his own personality. Demian is the story of Emil Sinclair’s adolescence. Sinclair, a sensitive and introspective youngster reared in a clean and well-ordered bourgeois home, first encounters evil in the world when he is blackmailed by a fellow student named Franz Kromer and becomes entangled in a web of lies, thefts, despair, and guilt. He is eventually aided by a new student, Max Demian, who becomes his mentor and idealized alter ego (what Jung had termed the imago). From Demian, Sinclair receives the Nietzschean lesson that the truth of reality lies beyond traditional bourgeois-Christian notions of good and evil; he must learn to accept both the light and the dark dimensions of the world and of his own spirit.

During 1920, Hesse wrote most of what would become one of his most popular novels, Siddhartha (1922; English translation, 1951). This text gives expression to his long-standing interest in Eastern religion and philosophy and also expresses his central theme of the duality of the intellectual and spiritual versus the physical and sensual. Set in India, it is the story of a man’s quest to attain enlightenment. At first Siddhartha pursues an ascetic life of contemplation with his friend Govinda, but he realizes that this path will not give him the release he seeks. He then moves to the city, where he discovers sensuality with the prostitute Kamala (with whom he has a son) and wealth and worldly power with the businessman Kamaswami. The pursuit of sensuality and material goods also proves to be a false path, and he returns to a simple life with the ferryman Vasudeva, who teaches him to listen to the constantly changing flow of the river. After he is rejected by his son, an experience that causes him to make a final complete surrender, Siddhartha finally gains self-transcendence. Hesse again took up the Eastern motif in the story Die Morgenlandfahrt Journey to the East, The (Hesse) (1932; The Journey to the East, 1956).

Hesse’s wife became psychotic in 1918 and was hospitalized; they were divorced in 1923. When a second, short-lived marriage ended, Hesse became even more depressed and spent most of his time frequenting the bars and jazz clubs of Zurich. These bitter years served as the basis for one of his most famous novels, Der Steppenwolf (1927; Steppenwolf, 1929), the sometimes surreal tale of the alcoholic and intellectual idealist Harry Haller, whose initials are those of Hesse himself.

Isolated from bourgeois society, the estranged Haller contemplates suicide. One night, he meets the beautiful prostitute Hermine, who informs him that he will fall in love with her and that later she will ask him to murder her. She tells him that he must learn to relax and laugh at the imperfections of life; she then proceeds to teach him to dance and to make love with her friend Maria. Her friend Pablo, a jazz musician, invites him to a drug party, where he hallucinates the Magic Theater, in which he realizes that his perception of himself as a lone wolf is an illusion, that his true self consists of many, at times conflicting, wishes and desires. When he awakes, he sees Pablo and Hermine together, and in a jealous rage, he stabs her. Since she really represents the feminine part of Harry himself—the Jungian notion of the anima—she vanishes, and Harry again learns that he must affirm all aspects of life and his own self.

By 1927, Hesse’s life had become more stable, and in 1931 he remarried. This marriage succeeded. He spent the remainder of his years in Switzerland in relative peace and comfort, devoting his time to writing, painting, and gardening. His last novel, Das Glasperlenspiel Magister Ludi (Hesse) (1943; Magister Ludi, 1949), tells the life story of Josef Knecht in the futuristic realm of Castalia. Knecht is a master of the Glass Bead Game, a complex game in which all elements of human knowledge and experience are synthesized. As are most of Hesse’s characters, Knecht is torn between the contemplative, spiritual life and the life of action and secular commitment. He eventually leaves Castalia and becomes the tutor of his friend’s son. Hesse won the Nobel Prize in Literature Nobel Prize in Literature;Hermann Hesse[Hesse] in 1946, largely on the basis of this last ambitious novel. He died on August 9, 1962, of leukemia.


The American publication of several Hesse texts during the first part of the twentieth century met a rather lukewarm response from critics. Even after he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946, only nine of his novels were available in English translation. Publishers were unprepared for the sudden surge of interest in this obscure German writer during the mid-1960’s, when his works became enormously popular on American university campuses and throughout various segments of the public at large. The reasons behind Hesse’s phenomenal popularity during this period have as much to do with the state of American society as they do with the works of the writer himself.

During the early 1960’s, the first members of the postwar baby-boom generation began to come of age. Unlike their parents, most of whom had experienced the Great Depression and World War II, these children had been reared in the relative security and prosperity of the 1950’s. They were healthy, well educated, and largely critical of the spirit of conformity and materialism, the “keep up with the Joneses” mentality that had so dominated their parents’ suburban neighborhoods, filled with neatly trimmed lawns and sterile shopping malls. They were ready to explore other visions of life. Given the themes of Hesse’s works, it is easy to see how he became their spiritual companion and guide.

These young people became members of the “do your own thing” era, a time of intense individualism in which personal self-expression and even eccentricity were valued. Long hair and bright clothes became the fashion as the “hippies” appeared in countless cities and towns across the United States. The individualist themes in the works of writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and in the songs of Bob Dylan seemed to echo the sentiments voiced by Hesse decades earlier through fictional characters such as Giebenrath from Beneath the Wheel, Sinclair from Demian, and Haller from Steppenwolf. These figures were all loners and rebels, and they gave a disaffected young generation of Americans the sense that there were kindred souls in the universe.

The 1960’s were, in part, a time of Dionysian revelry; this was, after all, the era of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” Timothy Leary urged people to “tune in, turn on, and drop out.” The puritanical spirit of the 1950’s gave way to the sexual license of “free love.” Harry Haller’s sexual liaison with Maria in Steppenwolf, Siddhartha’s relationship with the courtesan Kamala, and the many love affairs of Goldmund in Hesse’s medieval novel Narziss und Goldmund (1930; Death and the Lover, 1932; Narcissus and Goldmund, 1968) all seemed to echo the feelings of a generation.

Experimentation with drugs such as marijuana and LSD by many young people furthered this turn to sensuality. They found this reflected in Harry Haller’s drug-induced hallucinations. Music, above all, captured the spirit of the age. The psychedelic drug-inspired music of such performers as Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles proved to be the proverbial drummer to which many seemed to march. Mass concerts such as Woodstock in 1969 were truly Dionysian events in which the individual became immersed in the masses. The founding of the popular rock group Steppenwolf in 1968 as well as a film version of the novel in 1974 indicated how much Hesse had captured the spirit of the era.

Along with the popularity of music and the alternative experiences afforded by psychedelic drugs, the 1960’s also saw an increase in interest in spirituality, especially in Eastern religions and philosophies. Many people came to reject traditional Christianity and Judaism and turned to various forms of Buddhism, especially Zen. The Beatles’ short-lived flirtation with the transcendental meditation techniques of the Indian Maharishi Mahesh Yogi gave expression to what had become a major interest in the lives of numerous members of the American public. The chanting of mantras and the burning of incense were common in the typical hippie household. Again, many found similar themes in Hesse’s writings. Both Hesse’s father and his grandfather had been missionaries in India, and he had grown up steeped in the ideas of the East.

Novels such as Siddhartha—which was filmed in 1973—and The Journey to the East seemed to reflect the trends of American society. The spiritual or existential quest that was so prominent in virtually all of Hesse’s writings captivated the minds of many who believed themselves to be on similar inner journeys.

The 1960’s were also a highly political time. The U.S. military presence in Vietnam, which had begun to increase in the early 1960’s under the administrations of Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, elicited widespread protest. Student protest movement The ensuing controversy split the nation apart. Hesse was himself an ardent pacifist and internationalist. During World War I, he had taken a strongly antiwar position and had written numerous pieces denouncing the carnage. He was often attacked in the press for his stance by those who favored militarism. This experience is reflected in Steppenwolf, when Harry Haller is ostracized for his pacifist sentiments. Those who opposed the Vietnam War again found a spiritual companion in Hesse.

Protest was not confined to the Vietnam War demonstrations. There was a widespread sense of social criticism that was largely directed at the political and economic supremacy of the male-dominated, white middle class. The early 1960’s saw the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, as both African Americans and whites demonstrated on behalf of equal education and equal access to public facilities. The struggle for social equality represented only one dimension of the social criticism of the era. There was also a strong sense of antimaterialism as well as a rejection of modern technology, a “back to nature” mentality.

Many of the privileged sons and daughters of middle-class families gave up their comfortable lifestyles and went to live in communal groups under relatively primitive conditions. Many of Hesse’s novels, especially Steppenwolf and Demian, are strongly critical of the bourgeois world, with its regimentation and materialism, as well as of the modern age. In the Magic Theater section of the former text, there is a scene in which Harry joins a rebellion against the machines of the modern world.

Above all, the 1960’s were a time of youthful idealism and faith in the bringing forth of a new kind of world. Kennedy’s Peace Corps and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) attracted thousands of people, both young and old, to altruistic service. Although most of Hesse’s characters go through great personal despair and suffering, there is always a sense that change for the better is possible, that there is an ultimate spiritual meaning to existence. This last message appealed to thousands of Americans who, during this turbulent era, sought affirmation of their own lives. They read Hermann Hesse, and he spoke to them. Beneath the Wheel (Hesse) Steppenwolf (Hesse) Siddhartha (Hesse) Demian (Hesse) United States;counterculture Counterculture;literature

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bloom, Harold, ed. Hermann Hesse. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003. Another work overseen by the prolific editor Bloom, who also provides the introduction to this review of Hesse’s literary accomplishments and their cultural influences. Includes a bibliography and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boulby, Mark. Hermann Hesse: His Mind and Art. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1967. A perceptive discussion by a respected scholar that explores Hesse’s thematic and aesthetic concerns. Contains notes and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Casebeer, Edwin F. Hermann Hesse. New York: Crowell, 1972. A somewhat cursory but acceptable study for the beginning student. Contains notes and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rose, Ernst. Faith from the Abyss: Hermann Hesse’s Way from Romanticism to Modernity. New York: New York University Press, 1965. A good scholarly commentary on the modernist existential themes in Hesse’s major works. Contains notes and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tusken, Lewis W. Understanding Hermann Hesse: The Man, His Myth, His Metaphor. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998. Appropriate for general readers seeking an introduction to Hesse’s life and writings. The book includes plot summaries of Hesse’s major fictional works. Chronology, illustrations, bibliographies, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ziolkowski, Theodore. “A Celebration of Hermann Hesse.” World Literature Today 77, no. 1 (April-June, 2003): 60. The author, who coined the phrase “Saint Hesse among the hippies” in 1969, reminisces on the “Hesse cult” of the American youth of the 1960’s that has resurfaced with the fortieth anniversary of Hesse’s death in 2002 in the form of conferences, tours, meals, writers’ awards, a sculpture, exhibitions, and much more. A fascinating read.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Novels of Hermann Hesse: A Study in Theme and Structure. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1965. One of the best scholarly works in English on Hesse’s major texts. Recommended to the advanced student who seeks detailed and perceptive discussions. Contains notes and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______, comp. Hesse: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1973. A first-rate English-language collection of essays by both American and European critics, edited by a leading Hesse scholar. Contains chronology, notes, and a bibliography.

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Categories: History