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Hermann Hesse | Biography

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Early Years

Hermann Hesse was born July 2, 1877, to parents Johannes and Marie in the city of Calw, in what is now Germany. His parents, former missionaries to India, gave him a strict Protestant upbringing 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. At 14 his parents pushed him to go to seminary school in Maulbronn, Germany. Before long Hesse's rebellious streak got him into mischief at school, and he left after just seven months. Deeply troubled, Hesse attempted suicide in June 1892 and spent three months in a mental hospital for 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 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 parents' and grandfather's libraries. His studies focused on German literature, philosophy, history of art, and languages. He considered this period to be his own equivalent of a college education.

The Good Life

Everything seemed to come together perfectly for Hesse at 27 years old in 1904. 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 two more novels, stories, and poems.

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; former friends turned their backs on him, and an avalanche of hate mail arrived on his doorstep. In 1919 Hesse left his now-estranged wife and children and moved to a new residence in Switzerland. These events had a direct bearing on Hesse's development and his later novel Steppenwolf, in which the protagonist is a pacifist loner whose marriage has dissolved. Hesse became a citizen of Switzerland, living as a self-proclaimed "hermit" in the small town of Montagnola. He 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. Eventually, the novel was translated into many languages and became a global bestseller. In 1927 Hesse published Steppenwolf to mixed reviews, though over time it has become an influential classic. Further acclaimed novels by Hesse include Narcissus and Goldmund (1930) and his final novel, The Glass Bead Game, which took 11 years to write and was published in 1943. Despite his widespread success, reissues of Hesse's works were stalled in his native Germany until after the fall of the Nazi regime. At that time Hesse received both the Goethe Prize of Frankfurt 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 died on August 9, 1962. In 1997 the Hermann Hesse Museum opened in Montagnola next to his former home, Casa Camuzzi. Operated by the Hermann Hesse Foundation, visitors to the museum 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, and funds a residency scholarship for writers in the city of Calw. Also in Calw there is a permanent museum located in a historic building overlooking the house in which Hesse was born.

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