Hermann Hesse (1877-1962), born in Wurttemberg, Germany, was a poet, novelist and painter. His works include Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, Demian and The Glass Bead Game. His writings became widely known in English only in the 1960s although he had received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946. Hesse melded several forms of artistic endeavour with a deep interest in and respect for non-Western cultures and religious systems.
He had a troubled early life, marked by deep depressions, associated with rebellion against the doctrines of his strict Christian upbringing. He believed that conventional morality was, at least for artists, replaced by aesthetics. He began writing poetry and short prose works in 1897/8 although they did not sell. He worked in bookshops and mixed in intellectual circles, especially after moving to Basel, where he was able to explore his artistic desires and undertook many wanderings in wild places. He began writing novels and his first, Peter Camenzind, was one of Sigmund Freud’s favourites. Literary fame followed, and he was able to support a family. However by 1911 he was tired of domestic existence and left for a long trip to Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Sumatra, Borneo and Burma. He hoped to find spiritual or religious enlightenment, but this eluded him, in spite of his ongoing interest in Buddhism.
During World War 1 he was not fit for active service but was given the task of caring for prisoners of war. He opposed the tides of nationalistic madness and hatred, and called for recognition of the heritage of European histories and cultures, calling for love towards the enemy. This resulted in hatred and public controversy, made worse for him by the death of his father, the illness of his son Martin and his wife’s developing schizophrenia. He began to undergo psychotherapy, coming to know Carl Jung personally. In three weeks he wrote his novel Demian, published in 1919 under a pseudonym.
After his marriage ended, he moved alone to a small town on the border between Switzerland and Italy. This began the most productive time of his life. He began to paint, and wrote the novella Siddhartha, about the life of Buddha. His most famous novel, Steppenwolf, was published in 1927. He married an art historian, Ninon Dolbin, and began his major work, The Glass Bead Game, also known as Magister Ludi. His Nobel Prize was awarded mainly for this work.
The rising tide of Nazism began, and he helped many famous artists including dramatist Bertolt Brecht and writer Thomas Mann to escape into exile. His wife was Jewish. By the end of the 1930s his work was totally banned in Germany. His work was revived in the post-war era, but he was virtually unknown to English readers.
After his death, his works suddenly appeared in English translation in the United States and became bestsellers. His writing was associated with ideas of the 1960s counterculture movement, with the quest for enlightenment and seemingly psychedelic episodes in some of his writings such as the “magical theatre” in Steppenwolf. One reason for his popularity was the enthusiasm for his works expressed by Timothy Leary, guru of LSD. His renaissance spread all over the world and he became the most widely read and translated European author of the twentieth century, with a huge and continuing appeal to young people. His novel Siddartha has been translated and published widely in India, where a Hermann Hesse Society today flourishes.
Although Hesse is known for his writing, his works in visual art are vivid and vital, expressing his deep encounters with both the natural world and the towns and villages found in remote locations. His work was entirely in watercolour, in soft bright pastel tones, with high horizons. Almost every work included a tree, or several trees, framing and anchoring the landscapes as he viewed them. Many of his small works illustrated his poems. Galerie Ludorff mounted a rare exhibition of these works in 2008, with the texts of the poems published in German below each illustration.
His poems were translated by James Wright in 1970. A selection appears at:
In recent years, as conservatism and anti-liberty sentiments grew from the 1980s onwards, Hermann Hesse’s works once again disappeared from view, remaining popular with only a small contemporary audience. He is seen as a bit stuffy and old-fashioned, part of a pre-war European intellectual heritage. This is a pity as his work shows deep engagement with themes of great importance today: nature, art, individual feeling, the development of an authentic and meaningful culture and the need for compassion and sympathy to all beings. He remains one of my great inspirations.