This day will never come again and anyone who fails to eat and drink and taste and smell it will never have it offered to him again in all eternity. The sun will never shine as it does today…But you must play your part and sing a song, one of your best. – Hermann Hesse, Klingsor’s Last Summer (1919)
Hermann Karl Hesse was born July 2, 1877 in Calw, in the Northern Black Forest of what is now Germany, in a family that had deep intellectual and religious roots. His father and grandfather worked together at a Christian publishing company. His family were devout Pietists, a small sect that rejected the established church and looked toward a fervent striving for virtue. From a young age Hesse rejected both the obligation of honor toward his family and expected devotion to God, discipline and traditional schooling. He passed the exams to get into a prestigious monatastry, then blew it by running away. His parents put him in a mental institution, which he loathed and was eventually let out of. His mother’s disappointment with him was severe, and when she died in 1902 Hesse did not attend her funeral.
His maternal Grandfather was a missionary in India, and his mother partly grew up there. In 1911 he first traveled to the East, laying the groundwork for his later novels.
In October 1895 he began to work at a bookshop, and at the end of each twelve-hour day he would write. His free time was spent with books, studying theology, Greek mythology and philosophy and the German Romantics. In 1896 his first collection of poetry, Romantic Songs, was published, followed by One Hour After Midnight, in 1898. Neither volume sold, and Hesse’s mother disapproved of the content of poems. Hesse continued to write and live a life of artistic self-exploration through reading, travel and contemplation. He published Posthumous Writings and Poems of Hermann Lauscher and his work began to finally get noticed, a publisher became interested and his first novel, Peter Camenzind was published in 1904, becoming popular throughout German. Ironically, the novel about a failed writer allowed Hesse to make a living as a writer.
In 1922 his novel Siddhartha, a poetic novel set in India at the time of Buddha, was published. This novel illustrated his deep appreciation for Indian culture and Buddhist philosophy, and constant search for enlightenment through theology and philosophy, and later psychology. Steppenwolf was published in 1927 when Hesse was fifty, became popular with adolescents, to the author’s dismay. Many of Hesse’s books are cited as ‘gate-way’ drugs to literature, popular with young people, mainly because of their absorption with the self.
Married three times, Hesse was an unhappy husband and father, like the characters in his book both seeking and rejecting the trademarks of normal society.
His last full-length novel, The Glass Bead Game, was begun by Hesse in 1931 and published in Switzerland in 1943 after begin rejected in Germany because of his anti-Fascist views. It revolves around an academy of scholars who are all male and single. In 1946 Hesse won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Hesse died on August 9th, 1962, in Switzerland. He was 85 years old.
Hesse’s exploration of self through philosophy, religion, and psychology has remained popular. His constant self-exploration to shed this feelings of unworthiness and experience the truth of the divine led him to create works of lasting impact on generations of readers. Is he a ‘gateway drug’ to literature for youth? Who cares. There are much worse things to be in life.