A winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature:Hermann Hesse
by Paul A. Schons
Originally published by the Germanic American Institute in August, 2000
He was intensely popular among young people in
the United States during the sixties and seventies. The film
version of his Siddartha became a cult film. A popular
rock group bore the name of his novel, Steppenwolf. His
popularity was not only in the United States. For years before he
became known in the U.S. he would receive thousands of letters
from young people around the world asking for personal advice.
Hermann Hesse died in August of 1962, just before the height of
his popularity in the United States.
Hesse, more than any other writer in the 20th century, had a remarkable ability to remember the anxieties, idealism and passions of youth and to express that experience in his short stories, poems and novels. From his earliest "hit", Peter Camenzind (1904) through such other novels with special appeal to youth such as Unterm Rad, Der Steppenwolf, or Demian (originally published under the pen name, Emil Sinclair), Hesse touched ever widening circles of readers. As he matured, his works began to include deeper and more universal existential and spiritual insights which appealed increasingly to mature and serious readers. With his Das Glasperlenspiel (The Glass Bead Game) he would win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1946). He would also win the Goethe Prize (1946) and the Peace Prize of German Bookdealers (1955).
Hesse was born in the Black Forest of Germany, but spent a good deal of his life in Switzerland. From 1830-1836 his family lived in Basel, Switzerland as domestic missionaries of the pietistic movement. After moving back to Germany Hesse left again to permanent residence in Switzerland in 1912. In 1923 he gave up his German citizenship and became a Swiss citizen.
Hesse's youth was troubled. He was a brilliant lad who could learn with great ease and great speed if he was interested. School did not interest him. After several failed attempts in a series of schools, he finally became an apprentice clock maker and later an apprentice book seller. On the subject of his youth and school, Hesse said of himself, "I was not a very manageable boy". Just how unmanageable was perhaps best expressed by his father in 1893, "Humiliating though it would be to us, I am nevertheless seriously wondering if we should not put him into an institution or farm him out to strangers. We are too nervous and too weak for him." In the end his family did stand by him. During his apprenticeships and working as a book seller, he began to write and published his first book, Romantische Lieder (Romantic Songs) at age 21. From the publication of Peter Camendzind (age 27) and for the remainder of his life he was able to make a living from his writing.
Hesse wrote, on the subject of his intellectual interests, "Of the Western philosophers, I have been influenced most by Plato, Spinoza, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche as well as the historian Jacob Burckhardt. But they did not influence me as much as Indian and, later, Chinese philosophy." His interest in Indian philosophy was certainly one of the elements which his devoted readers in the United States found attractive. During the sixties and seventies, protesting youth also found much attraction in that style of thinking.
Hesse's own exposure to Indian philosophy began in earliest childhood. His maternal grandfather, Hermann Gundert had been a missionary in India and became a leading scholar in Indian studies after his return to Europe. Hesse's mother had been born in India. In his own home and in his grandparents' home as a child he was always surrounded by books on India and was frequently in the presence of visiting Indian scholars both from Europe and from Asia. That influence on young Hermann was clearly profound and lasting. In 1911 he spent four months In India at age 34, adding direct personal experience to the impressions he had gained from his family and from reading. (His story of the young Buddha, Siddhartha, was published in 1922.) He would comment, though, after the experiences in India that life there did not afford the spiritual encounter that he had hoped for. Rather, he came to realize that the ideals he sought needed to be formulated and developed within himself.
Clearly the images he had of Indian life and thought were filtered and developed through his own experiences in Europe, his reading of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, his youthful immersion in the writings of Goethe and the German romantic writers and doubtlessly were further molded by the psychoanalysis he undertook with Carl Jung and J. B. Lang.