struggle through

Hermann Hesse

[hes-uh for 1; hes for 2]

Hermann Hesse (2 July, 18779 August, 1962) was a German-Swiss poet, novelist, and painter. In 1946, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature. His best-known works include Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, and The Glass Bead Game (also known as Magister Ludi) which explore an individual's search for spirituality outside society.



Hesse was born in the Black Forest town of Calw in Württemberg, Germany to a Christian missionary family. Both of his parents served with a Basel Mission to India, where Hesse's mother Marie Gundert was born in 1842. Hesse's father, Johannes Hesse, was born in 1847 in Estonia, the son of a doctor. The Hesse family had lived in Calw since 1873, where they operated a missionary publishing house under the direction of Hesse's grandfather, Hermann Gundert.

Hesse spent his first years of life surrounded by the spirit of Swabian piety. In 1880 the family moved to Basel, Switzerland, for six years, then returned to Calw. After successful attendance at the Latin School in Göppingen, Hesse began to attend the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Maulbronn in 1891. Here in March 1892, Hesse showed his rebellious character and in one instance he fled from the Seminary and was found in a field a day later.

During this time, Hesse began a journey through various institutions and schools, and experienced intense conflicts with his parents. In May, after an attempt at suicide, he spent time at an institution in Bad Boll under the care of theologian and minister Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt. Later he was placed in a mental institution in Stetten im Remstal, and then a boys' institution in Basel.

At the end of 1892, he attended the Gymnasium in Cannstatt. In 1893, he passed the One Year Examination, which concluded his schooling.

After this, Hesse began a bookshop apprenticeship in Esslingen am Neckar, but after three days he left. Then in the early summer of 1894, he began a fourteen month mechanic apprenticeship at a clock tower factory in Calw. The monotony of soldering and filing work made him resolve to turn himself toward more spiritual activities. In October 1895, he was ready to begin wholeheartedly a new apprenticeship with a bookseller in Tübingen. This experience from his youth he returns to later in his novel, Beneath the Wheel.

Becoming a writer

On October 17, 1895, Hesse began working in the bookshop Heckenhauer in Tübingen, which had a specialized collection in theology, philology, and law. Hesse's assignment there consisted of organizing, packing, and archiving the books. After the end of each twelve hour workday, Hesse pursued his own work further, and he spent his long, idle Sundays with books rather than friends. Hesse studied theological writings, and later Goethe, Lessing, Schiller, and several texts on Greek mythology. In 1896, his poem 'Madonna' appeared in a Viennese periodical.

By 1898, Hesse had a respectable income that enabled his financial independence from his parents. During this time, he concentrated on the works of the German Romantics, including much of the work from Clemens Brentano, Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff, Friedrich Holderlin and Novalis. In letters to his parents, he expressed a belief that "the morality of artists is replaced by aesthetics."

In the fall, Hesse released his first small volume of poetry, Romantic Songs and in the summer of 1899, a collection of prose, entitled One Hour After Midnight . Both works were a business failure. In two years, only 54 of the 600 printed copies of Romantic Songs were sold, and One Hour After Midnight received only one printing and sold sluggishly. Nevertheless, the Leipzig publisher Eugen Diederichs was convinced of the literary quality of the work and from the beginning regarded the publications more as encouragement of a young author than as profitable business.

Beginning in the fall of 1899, Hesse worked in a distinguished antique book shop in Basel. There through family contacts he stayed with the intellectual families of Basel. In this environment with rich stimuli for his pursuits, he further developed spiritually and artistically. At the same time, Basel offered the solitary Hesse many opportunities for withdrawal into a private life of artistic self-exploration through journeys and wanderings. In 1900, Hesse was exempted from compulsory military service due to an eye condition. This, along with nerve disorders and persistent headaches, affected him his entire life.

In 1901, Hesse undertook to fulfill a grand dream and travelled for the first time to Italy. In the same year, Hesse changed jobs and began working at the antiquarium Wattenwyl in Basel. Hesse had more opportunities to release poems and small literary texts to journals. These publications now provided honorariums. Shortly the publisher Samuel Fischer became interested in Hesse, and with the novel Peter Camenzind, which appeared first as a pre-publication in 1903 and then as a regular printing by Fischer in 1904, came a breakthrough: From now on, Hesse could live as a free author.

Between Lake Constance and India

With the literary fame, Hesse married Maria Bernoulli (of the famous family of mathematicians) in 1904, settled down with her in Gaienhofen on Lake Constance, and began a family, eventually having three sons. In Gaienhofen, he wrote his second novel Beneath the Wheel, which was published in 1906. In the following time he composed primarily short stories and poems. His next novel, Gertrude, published in 1910, revealed a production crisis—he had to struggle through writing it, and he later would describe it as "a miscarriage."

Gaienhofen was also the place where Hesse's interest in Buddhism was resparked. After a letter to Kapff in 1895 entitled Nirvana, Hesse's Buddhist references were no longer alluded to in his works. This was rekindled, however, in 1904 when Arthur Schopenhauer and his philosophical ideas started receiving attention again, and Hesse discovered theosophy. Schopenhauer and theosophy are what renewed Hesse's interest in India. Although 1904 was many years before the publication of Hesse's Siddhartha (1922), this masterpiece was derived from these new influences.

During this time, there also was increased dissonance between him and Maria, and in 1911, Hesse left alone for a long trip to Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Any spiritual or religious inspiration that he was looking for eluded him, but the journey made a strong impression on his literary work. Following Hesse's return, the family moved to Bern in 1912, but the change of environment could not solve the marriage problems, as he himself confessed in his novel Rosshalde from 1914.

The First World War

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Hesse registered himself as a volunteer with the Imperial army, saying that he could not sit inactively by a warm fireplace while other young authors were dying on the front. He was found unfit for combat duty, but was assigned to service involving the care of war prisoners.

On November 3, 1914, in the Neuen Züricher Zeitung, Hesse's essay "O Friends, Not These Tones" ("O Freunde, nicht diese Töne") appeared, in which he appealed to German intellectuals not to fall for patriotism. What followed from this, Hesse later indicated, was a great turning point in his life: For the first time he found himself in the middle of a serious political conflict, attacked by the German press, the recipient of hate mail, and distanced from old friends. He did receive continued support from his friend Theodor Heuss, and the French writer Romain Rolland, whom Hesse visited in August 1915.

This public controversy was not yet resolved, when a deeper life crisis befell Hesse with the death of his father on March 8, 1916, the difficult sickness of his son Martin, and his wife's schizophrenia. He was forced to leave his military service and begin receiving psychotherapy. This began for Hesse a long preoccupation with psychoanalysis, through which he came to know Carl Jung personally, and was challenged to new creative heights: During a three-week period during September and October 1917, Hesse penned his novel Demian, which would be published following the armistice in 1919 under the pseudonym Emil Sinclair. (Emil Sinclair was a friend of the German Romantic poet Novalis, who was an influence on Hesse).

Casa Camuzzi

When Hesse returned to civilian life in 1919, his marriage was shattered. His wife had a severe outbreak of psychosis, but even after her recovery, Hesse saw no possible future with her. Their home in Bern was divided, and Hesse resettled alone in the middle of April in Ticino, where he occupied a small farm house near Minusio (close to Locarno), and later lived from April 25 to May 11 in Sorengo. On May 11, he moved to the town Montagnola and rented four small rooms in a strange castle-like building, the 'Casa Camuzzi'.

Here he explored his writing projects further; he began to paint, an activity which is reflected in his next major story Klingsor's Last Summer, published in 1920. In 1922, Hesse's novel Siddhartha appeared, which showed the love for Indian culture and Buddhist philosophy, which had already developed at his parents' house. In 1924, Hesse married the singer Ruth Wenger, the daughter of the Swiss writer Lisa Wenger and aunt of Meret Oppenheim. This marriage never attained any true stability, however.

In 1923, Hesse received Swiss citizenship. His next major works, Kurgast (1925) and The Nuremberg Trip (1927), were autobiographical narratives with ironic undertones, and foreshadowed Hesse's following novel, Steppenwolf, which was published in 1927. In the year of his 50th birthday, the first biography of Hesse appeared, written by his friend Hugo Ball. Shortly after his new successful novel, he turned away from the solitude of Steppenwolf and married art historian Ninon Dolbin, née Ausländer. This change to companionship was reflected in the novel Narcissus and Goldmund, appearing in 1930.

In 1931, Hesse left the Casa Camuzzi and moved with Ninon to a large house (Casa Hesse) near Montagnola, which was built according to his wishes.

The Glass Bead Game

In 1931, Hesse began planning what would become his last major work, The Glass Bead Game (aka Magister Ludi). In 1932 as a preliminary study, he released the novella, Journey to the East. The Glass Bead Game was printed in 1943 in Switzerland. For this work, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946.

Later life

Hesse observed the rise to power of Nazism in Germany with concern. In 1933, Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann made their travels into exile, and in both cases, were aided by Hesse. In this way, Hesse attempted to work against Hitler's suppression of art and literature that protested Nazi ideology.

Hesse, who had long published pieces in German journals and newspapers, spoke publicly in support of Jewish artists and others pursued by the Nazis. However, when he wrote for the Frankfurter Zeitung, he was accused of supporting the Nazis, whom Hesse did not openly oppose.

From the end of the 1930s, German journals stopped publishing Hesse's work, and his work was eventually banned by the Nazis.

The Glass Bead Game was Hesse's last novel. During the last twenty years of his life Hesse wrote many short stories (chiefly recollections of his childhood) and poems (frequently with nature as their theme). Hesse wrote ironic essays about his alienation from writing (for instance, the mock autobiographies: Life Story Briefly Told and Aus den Briefwechseln eines Dichters) and spent much time pursuing his interest in watercolors.

Hesse also occupied himself with the steady stream of letters he received as a result of the prize and as a new generation of German readers explored his work. In one essay, Hesse reflected wryly on his lifelong failure to acquire a talent for idleness and speculated that his average daily correspondence was in excess of 150 pages. He died on August 9, 1962 and was buried in the cemetery at San Abbondio in Montagnola, where Hugo Ball is also buried.

Popularity outside the German speaking countries

A few years after Hesse's death in 1962, his novels enjoyed a revival of popularity due to their association with some of the themes of the 1960s counterculture (or "hippie") movement. In particular, the quest-for-enlightenment theme of Siddhartha, Journey to the East, and Narcissus and Goldmund resonated with countercultural ideals. Also, the "magic theater" sequences in Steppenwolf were interpreted by some as drug-induced psychedelia. These and other Hesse novels were republished in paperback editions and were widely read by university students and young people in the United States and elsewhere.

Selected works

For a more complete list, see Hermann Hesse#Literatur and Sämtliche Werke (Complete works, ed. 2001-2007). The most important works are marked with asterisk.


Hesse received honorary citizenship from his home city of Calw, and additionally, throughout Germany many schools are named after him. In 1964, the Calwer Hermann-Hesse-Preis was founded, which is awarded every two years, alternately to a German-language literary journal or to the translator of Hesse's work to a foreign language. There is also a Hermann-Hesse-Preis that is associated with the city of Karlsruhe.

Hermann Hesse in popular culture

  • In the summer of 1948, the composer Richard Strauss set three short poems by Hesse to music to become all but one of his valedictory Four Last Songs, the final works completed by Strauss prior to his death in 1949.
  • In 1967, the rock band Steppenwolf named themselves after Hesse's novel, partly due to lead singer John Kay having been born and grown up in Germany. Along with other bands also inspired by Hesse, like Anyone's Daughter with their 40 minute version of "Piktors Verwandlungen", Steppenwolf played in 2002 on Calw's market square as part of the International Hermann-Hesse-Festival 2002
  • The Volvos singer Heynes Arms wrote a song entitled "I Think I'm Herman Hesse". Like Hesse, Arms had German parentage and was born on July 2.
  • A portion of Hermann Hesse's quote, "In each individual the spirit is made flesh, in each one the whole of creation suffers, in each one a savior is crucified," excerpted from his work Demian: The Story of Emil Sinclair's Youth was included in the eighth episode of NBC's television drama, The Black Donnellys entitled "In Each One a Savior".
  • The British progressive rock band Yes was also influenced by the works of Hermann Hesse, especially on their 1972 album, Close to the Edge, considered by most critics and fans to be their masterpiece.
  • Seattle, Washington based World Champion Slam Poet Buddy Wakefield titled the first track of his 2006 album (Run On Anything) Healing Hermann Hesse.
  • Washington DC based electronic duo Thievery Corporation has a song on their album Sounds from the Thievery Hi-Fi (1997) titled "The Glass Bead Game".
  • The UK Indie-Rock band James makes reference to Hermann Hesse with their lyrics in the song "Crash" on the album Millionaires: "Cut the Hermann free from the Hesse".
  • A song by the English rock band Blur, "Strange News from Another Star", from their 1997 album Blur, takes its name from the title of Hesse's 1919 anthology of short stories, Strange News from Another Star.
  • The New York band Suncrown recorded the song Helen, which contains the lyric "I am Goldmouth lost deep in the forest", referring to the character from Narcissus and Goldmund.
  • The Slovenian rock band Siddharta is named after Hesse's novel Siddhartha.
  • The American performance artist Laurie Anderson mentions Hermann Hesse and his grave in her spoken piece "Maria Teresa Teresa Maria" on the live album The Ugly One with the Jewels. In it she mentions the disparity between his gravestone and that of his wife, Nina, apparently misunderstanding the citation "Ausländer", which in fact was Nina's maiden name.
  • Comedian Patton Oswalt mentioned Hesse on his album, Feelin' Kinda Patton.
  • In his 2003 novel, "Call me the Breeze", author Patrick McCabe presents us with yet another unhinged character in the form of Joey Tallon. From Joey's diaries we see his warped but frequently dead-on view of life in an Irish cross-border town in the 1970s. Among his multiple obsessions is a fascination with the writings of Hermann Hesse. The name of the novel reflects Joey's love of Lynnard Skynnard.
  • River Phoenix was named for the river of life in the Hermann Hesse novel Siddhartha.


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