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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES - BIOGRAPHY
The decade of the 1960s has gone down in United States history as the era of the Youth Rebellion. It was a time of campus sit-ins and college dropouts. Young people rejected the values of their elders and warned each other: "Don't trust anyone over thirty." In contradiction to their own slogan, many of these same young people avidly read a little-known German author, already deceased (he died in 1962 at the age of eighty-five). What's more, they favored a novel he had written in 1927, when he was fifty. The writer was Hermann Hesse and the novel was Steppenwolf. Also popular with the rebels was Siddhartha, which Hesse wrote in 1922.
Hesse has been called a Neo-Romantic, meaning that his work echoes the ideas of the German Romantic movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Steppenwolf has the melancholy, pessimism, and preoccupation with death and suicide characteristic of the Romantics, while Siddhartha is an example of the Romantics' fascination with distant times and places, Eastern religions, and fairy tales and legends.
Steppenwolf is the only one of Hesse's ten novels set in a twentieth-century city: all the others take place in past or future time and in exotic or imaginary places. Although modern in setting and content, the novel has numerous references to writers of the Romantic era; one of its "Immortals," the geniuses who hover above the earth, is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), the greatest German writer of the period.
Like the Romantic writers, Hesse treats artists and intellectuals as outsiders in their society. In Steppenwolf he calls them the "Steppenwolves," untamed wolves who have strayed into the city from the steppes, the open plains. He called himself a Steppenwolf, and before writing the novel he wrote a series of poems titled "Steppenwolf: a Bit of Diary in Verse" (later published under the title Crisis). This concept of the artist as a stranger in his world stems in part from the fact that Germany in the Romantic era (and until 1871) was not a unified nation but a loose collection of mostly small states. Its writers generally considered themselves citizens not of their little communities but of the world. They were scornful of the restraints of propriety and sought the freedom to experience the heights and depths of the emotions. In the same vein, Steppenwolf's hero, Harry Haller, on his first appearance in the novel, is in a characteristically Romantic state of disgust with his placid day, which had held neither joy nor pain.
Hermann Hesse won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946, but by the late 1950s he had only a small literary following in the United States. What drew the young rebels of the 1960s to his works?
The truth is that these two novels, although written forty years earlier, addressed many of the rebellious youths' concerns and interests. Steppenwolf's hero attacks commercialism, war-making, and society's indifference to the arts, and he takes a hallucinatory, possibly drug-induced "trip." Siddhartha, the story of a Hindu prince's exploration of the religions of his time, met the young people's interest in Eastern culture as something perhaps more relevant than what the Western world offered them.
The Eastern influence was part of Hesse's childhood as the son and grandson of missionaries who had served in India. Later, during his psychoanalysis, he would return to this atmosphere of his childhood to make a serious study of the Indian religions and their scriptures, the Vedas and Upanishads of Hinduism and the teachings of the Buddha.
Hinduism came into India with a Sanskrit-speaking nomadic people, the Aryans, about 1500 B.C., and developed into the rigid, ritualistic Brahminism against which Siddhartha rebels in the novel. A countermovement to Brahminism was Buddhism, in the fifth century B.C., which taught that each individual could achieve release from suffering without the Brahministic rituals, by following the Buddha's teaching and giving up all worldly ties. Hesse described Buddhism as the Protestant movement of Indian religion. He first embraced and then rejected the Buddhist principle as a denial of life. Siddhartha also rejects the Buddha's teaching, as he rejects all teaching, in order to find his own way to the peace of understanding.
In his native Germany, Hermann Hesse was not considered a writer of protest. He was regarded as part of the mainstream of German literature. However, his political outspokenness-as a pacifist in World War I and an anti-Nazi through the 1930s and World War II-forced him to leave Germany and to become a Swiss citizen.
In the years after World War II, Hesse was again a popular author in Germany and received many letters from disillusioned young Germans. He also gained a vast audience in postwar Japan. In 1946 he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. The tidal wave of American interest in Hesse came too late for him to appreciate. He envisioned America as a technological hell with no soul, and he predicted that not more than ten people in the United States would ever appreciate his work. If he had lived a few years longer he would have seen his prediction overturned. The rebels of the 1960s in the United States saw him as an advocate of the antimaterialistic counterculture, the drug culture, and the search for truth in the mystic religions of the East. Throughout the 1960s and early '70s, Hesse was one of their heroes. Vast numbers of Steppenwolf and Siddhartha were sold, and Hesse's other works were popular as well.
If his youthful followers had read Hesse's biography as avidly as they read his fiction, they would have learned that his life was as relevant to them as his novels. He was a top student, but also a rebel who ran away from one school and was expelled from another. His parents had even once engaged a faith healer to drive out the demon they believed had possessed the boy. And another time he attempted suicide.
Hesse spent his life looking within himself for the meaning of human existence. Each of his novels was in some way autobiographical, and he himself acknowledged that in all his heroes he saw "pieces of himself." Steppenwolf is his most openly autobiographical novel, and even Siddhartha, although exotic in story and setting, is a modestly disguised autobiography.