Hesse, who was born in Germany in 1877, did well at school but struggled with authority. Apprenticed for a time in a clock-making factory, he later worked as a bookshop assistant in Tübingen, beginning to write when he was in his twenties. From the outset, his works addressed the pursuit of authenticity, the attempt to escape the dictates of society, and the discovery of internal truth. In life and in literature both, Hesse was preoccupied with the yearning for self-realization and the quest for peace of mind. The characters in his early works destroy themselves trying to meet expectations and fulfill their potential as per accepted social norms. For Hesse, inauthentic success is ultimately irreversible failure. The novels Peter Camenzind (1904) and Unterm Rad (Beneath the Wheel) (1906) proffer little hope for those who fail to break free of predetermined confines.
Hesse, who studied at a Christian seminary in his youth, later broadened his spiritual quest. He was deeply influenced by the events of the First World War, during which he moved to Switzerland and spoke out regularly against the events taking place in Europe. He also edited a journal for German prisoners of war and publicly condemned the spreading of nationalist sentiments at the time. Gradually, Hesse began turning to Eastern doctrines. His well-known novel Siddhartha is set in India during the time of Buddha and deals with the quest for spiritual redemption.
Hesse settled in Switzerland and became a Swiss citizen. In 1919, he published Demian, a novel dealing with the emotional tribulations of a troubled adolescent. At this stage, Hesse was profoundly influenced by the psychological theories of Jung, whom he met in person, and was undergoing psychoanalysis with one of Jung's students. Indeed, Demian is replete with symbols, archetypes, and references to the unconscious. It was a resounding success with German audiences, which were left desolate and confused by the country's defeat in World War I.
Even when Hesse was in his forties, the conflicts that plagued his existence remained unresolved. The central theme of the novels Steppenwolf and Narcissus and Goldmund are, once again, conflict between the individual and the establishment or collective, and the former's self-realization and spiritual redemption.
Hesse was deeply troubled when the Nazis came to power in 1933, and helped Berthold Brecht and Thomas Mann flee the country. Though Hesse kept his distance from politics, he expressed open opposition to the Nazis and emphatically refused to censor himself in accordance with the new trends emerging in Germany. Eventually, Hesse's works were banned by the Nazis
In 1946, Hermann Hesse was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. He spent the last twenty years of his life writing short stories and poetry; after 1943, he never again wrote a novel. He occupied himself with water-color painting, letter writing and publishing essays and brief childhood memoirs. Many of his letters and prose pieces were published after his death in 1962. Only then did his works enjoy accolades in the United States, becoming popular with the flower children and the Beat generation. His interest in India, Buddhism, the search for authenticity, self-expression, and the preservation of individual autonomy in a world of grand schemes and social expectations, earned Hermann Hesse a broad following among readers throughout the West. His translated works sold well all over the world.
The National Library has a variety of holdings related to Hermann Hesse: first editions of his books, translated editions of his works, a handwritten dedication by Hesse, a letter that features a watercolor painting, and the manuscipt of a tale by Hesse, illustrated by the author.