I was systematically reading through Hermann Hesse’s novels when I first met Carolyn in 1983, and we have both really enjoyed his inspiring books and other creative output.
Hesse was a brilliant German-Swiss novelist, poet, and painter who lived between 1877 and 1962. Some of his most well-known books include Siddhartha, Demian, Steppenwolf, and Magister Ludi: The Glass Bead Game, which are my favorites as well. Each book explores a similar theme, of an individual’s efforts to break free from the established modes of civilization, and begin a quest for self-knowledge and spiritual understanding.
Hesse was born in Calw, Germany and he later became a citizen of Switzerland. Hesse began working in a bookstore in Tübingen as a teenager, and at the end of his twelve-hour shifts, he worked on his own writing. His first publication came in 1896, with his poem Madonna in a Viennese magazine, and later that year this was followed by the publication of a small volume of his poetry titled Romantic Songs. Hesse’s first poetry collection wasn’t met with much success— it only sold 54 copies in two years— and Hesse’s mother didn’t like the poems, calling them “vaguely sinful,” which was upsetting to Hesse.
In 1899 Hesse began working at another bookstore in Basel, and spent much time alone, engaged in self-exploration. Due to an eye condition, in 1900 he was exempted from compulsory military service, and he suffered from nerve disorders and persistent headaches throughout his life.
In the early years of the last century, Hesse published more poems and some short prose in journals. In 1904 Hesse’s novel Peter Camenzind was published, and this was a breakthrough novel for him, as from this point on, Hesse could now earn a living as a writer. The novel became popular throughout Germany, and the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud praised Peter Camenzind as one of his favorite novels.
Hesse’s parents had a profound influence on his spirituality, and he said of his parents that, “their Christianity, one not preached but lived, was the strongest of the powers that shaped and molded me.” Self-exploration and spiritual development became important themes in many of Hesse’s writings. There was a ‘quest for enlightenment or self-realization’ theme in his books Siddhartha, Journey to the East, and Narcissus and Goldmund, and he often drew from Buddhism, Hinduism, and other Eastern philosophies in his novels. Hesse saw value in the varied forms of spiritual expression, and said, “For different people, there are different ways to God.”
Hesse is the author of 29 books. He also began painting when he was in his early 40s, and he created a legacy of around 3000 beautiful watercolors. The book Trees: An Anthology of Writings and Paintings collects Hesse’s poems and essays on the subject of trees and is accompanied by 31 of his watercolor illustrations, and the book Hesse as Painter collects 20 of his watercolors.
In 1946 Hesse received the Nobel Prize in Literature for his book Magister Ludi: The Glass Bead Game. However, despite Hesse’s status as a Nobel laureate, when Hesse died in 1962, his work wasn’t very well known in the United States. In fact, in the obituary that The New York Times published after Hesse’s death, said that his work was largely “inaccessible” to American readers.
This all changed in the mid-1960s when Hesse’s books suddenly became bestsellers in the U.S., and within the span of a few years, he became the most widely read and translated European author of the 20th century. The revival in popularity of Hesse’s works has been credited to their association with some of the popular themes of the 1960s counterculture, and according to Bernhard Zeller’s autobiography on Hesse, “in large part, the Hesse boom in the United States can be traced back to enthusiastic writings by two influential counterculture figures: Colin Wilson and Timothy Leary.”
Hesse’s work has had a considerable cultural influence. The band Steppenwolf took its name from Hesse’s novel with that title, and there is also a theater in Chicago called The Steppenwolf Theater. Throughout Germany, many schools are named after Hesse. Hesse’s novel Siddhartha required reading in my high school English class, which is how I first discovered his work.
Some quotes that Hermann Hesse is remembered for include:
“I have always believed, and I still believe, that whatever good or bad fortune may come our way we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value.”
Learn what is to be taken seriously and laugh at the rest.
Wisdom cannot be imparted. Wisdom that a wise man attempts to impart always sounds like foolishness to someone else … Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it.
Whoever wants music instead of noise, joy instead of pleasure, soul instead of gold, creative work instead of business, passion instead of foolery, finds no home in this trivial world of ours.
I have been and still am a seeker, but I have ceased to question stars and books; I have begun to listen to the teaching my blood whispers to me.”
“Some of us think holding on makes us strong but sometimes it is letting go
Carolyn and I have both seem evidence of Hesse’s influence in one another’s writings. On the back cover of my first book, Brainchild, Carolyn wrote. “Brown is the Hesse of our time.” Similarly, in the introduction to Carolyn’s book The Alchemy of Possibility, I wrote, “Following the tradition of William Blake and Hermann Hesse, The Alchemy of Possibility is a poetic blend of mysticism and imagination.”