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Hermann Hesse | Biography

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Early Years

Hermann Hesse was born on July 2, 1877, to parents Johannes and Marie Hesse in the city of Calw in what is now Germany. His parents, former missionaries to India, raised him with a strict Protestant background and expected him to become a minister. While Hesse initially excelled in school, at age 12 he realized he wanted to be a poet―a vocation that was not supported by his schooling or his parents. When he was 14, his parents pushed him to go seminary school in Maulbronn. Before long, Hesse's rebellious streak got him into various scrapes, and he left after just seven months. Deeply troubled, Hesse attempted suicide in 1892 and spent three months in a mental hospital under observation.

For several years after this, Hesse bounced from school to school, sometimes expelled and sometimes running away, as well as from job to job. He worked as his father's assistant and as a mechanic in training at a tower-clock factory before settling into work as a bookseller in 1895. During this period, he published his first poems (Romantic Songs, 1899) and began working on novels. From 1893 to 1897, he also educated himself using the treasure trove of books in his grandfather's library. His studies focused on German literature, philosophy, history of art, and languages. He considered this period his own equivalent of a college education.

The Good Life

In 1904 everything seemed to come together perfectly for the 26-year-old Hesse. In this year he married Maria Bernoulli and also published his first critical success, the novel Peter Camenzind. Over the next several years Hesse and his wife had three sons, Bruno, Heiner, and Martin, and they lived in the country. Hesse contributed extensively to periodicals and newspapers and published stories, poems, and two more novels. In 1911 Hesse traveled through Asia, later drawing from these travels in the writing of Siddhartha.

World War I and Its Aftermath

The advent of World War I (1914–18) was a great shock to Hesse, a pacifist who viewed the war as a disaster. While those around him loudly praised the war efforts and the "great time" they were living in, Hesse could see only the toll the violence was taking on human lives. Unable to suppress his misery, Hesse wrote an article in 1915 denouncing the war, in which "even so called spiritual people could find nothing better to do than preach hatred, spread lies, and praise the great misfortune to the skies." Hesse was labeled a traitor, with former friends turning their backs on him and an avalanche of hate mail arriving on his doorstep. In 1919 Hesse left his now-estranged wife and children and moved to a new residence in Switzerland. He became a citizen there, living as a self-proclaimed "hermit" in the small town of Montagnola. Hesse later remarried twice, first to Ruth Wenger (1924) and then to Ninon Dolbin (née Ausländer; 1931).

Further Writing and Legacy

The reclusive life in Switzerland suited Hesse, who took up painting as a meditative pursuit and continued to write novels and novellas. Hesse published Siddhartha in 1922, a time when there was a general surge of interest in Eastern cultures and religions. The novel was translated into many languages and became a global bestseller. Further acclaimed novels by Hesse were published, including Steppenwolf (1927) and Narcissus and Goldmund (1930). His final novel, The Glass Bead Game, took 11 years to write and was published in 1943. Despite his widespread success, Hesse's works were banned in his native Germany until after the fall of Nazi German dictator Adolf Hitler's regime. At that time Hesse received both the Goethe Prize of Frankfurt (in 1946) and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946, cementing his reputation as a world-class writer. The next year Hesse was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Berne, where he had once lived for a time.

Hesse passed away on August 9, 1962. In 1997 the Hermann Hesse Museum opened in Montagnola next to his former home, Casa Camuzzi. Visitors to the museum, which is operated by the Hermann Hesse Foundation, can view a permanent exhibition of Hesse's personal effects as well as attend lectures, concerts, films, and literary readings. The foundation also awards an annual literary award on Hesse's birthday, July 2. The Calw Hermann Hesse Prize funds a residency scholarship for writers in the city of Calw. Also in Calw, there is a permanent museum located in an historic building overlooking the house in which Hesse was born.

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