Hermann Hesse: Biography & Books

Instructor: Joe Ricker
This lesson will provide an overview of the literary career of Herman Hesse, a Nobel Prize winning author whose vast span of works about the themes of personal realization remain influential to this day.

Herman Karl Hesse

Herman Hesse was an essayist, novelist, and poet whose writing career fizzled out after he won the Nobel Prize in 1946. Much of that was due to his failing health, which prevented him from traveling to Stockholm in 1946 to receive the award. However, to this day, Herman Hesse remains a best-selling German author.

Hesse was born in Germany to parents with different nationalities. His father had been a missionary in India. Despite the hopes of his parents for Hesse to pursue a career in theology, Hesse became disillusioned with education and pursued his writing while working in a book store and clock tower factory, as well as an antique store. Hesse's pursuit of learning was more autonomous than the regimented structure of traditional education, which Hesse felt he wasn't suited for. For most of his life and prevalent in his writing, Hesse was mostly preoccupied with his own self-realization.

Herman Hesse

Who am I

Hesse resigned to writing mostly short prose and poetry and published a book of poetry titled: Romantic Songs and a book of short works titled: One Hour After Midnight. Both of these works were greatly unsuccessful. In 1904, Hesse published Peter Camanzind, a novel about a writer frustrated with his lack of success. Ironically, Peter Camanzind launched his career and allowed him to make his living as a writer. Hesse followed Peter Camanzind with his book Beneath the Wheel, which also received exceptional praise and put Hesse on a path of great success as a prose writer. Beneath the Wheel tells the story of the downward spiral of an overly academic student.

Despite his success as a writer, Hesse volunteered for the Imperial Army, and his experience in WWI contributed to much of his perspective on the quality of human life, and in turn, influenced his writing. After the war, and having found much controversy for his criticisms of Germany, Hesse dealt with personal turmoil. His first wife became schizophrenic, his father died, and his son became extremely ill. Hesse began psychotherapy after leaving the army and eventually came to know renowned psychologist Carl Jung on a personal level. Shortly after the war, Hesse's marriage fell apart. He lived alone for several years before remarrying.

After the war, because of the controversy he had provoked, Hesse published Demian under the pseudonym Emil Sinclair. Demian is a coming-of-age novel about a teenager struggling with the meaning of life. Much of Hesse's writing carries the philosophical undertones of the philosophers that influenced Hesse's work, including Plato, Socrates, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. Despite Hesse's admiration for these philosophers, he was much more influenced by Indian and Chinese philosophy. Siddhartha, one of his most notable books, is set in India during the time that Buddha was alive and details the journey of a man seeking enlightenment.

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