Authors: Hermann Hesse
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Hermann Hesse was an inveterate letter writer. In the eighty years between a note that the four-year-old dictated to his mother in 1881 and the thank-you note that he mailed to a colleague shortly following his eighty-fifth birthday in 1962, he wrote over thirty thousand letters and cards to hundreds of correspondents. Hesse was seemingly incapable of leaving a communication unanswered. In 1934 he observed that “for many years approximately half of my work has consisted in reading and answering the letters that I receive from Germany”âa responsibility that, until 1950, he carried out personally. And although laterâespecially following the award of the Nobel Prize in 1946, when he received more than seven thousand lettersâhe often responded with circular letters or acknowledgments printed for special occasions, he took it as a moral commitment to reply to every communication.
This epistolary impulse merits our attention not just, or mainly, because of the impressive output it engendered. When Hesse was still in his teens, his father noted this compulsion in a letter to Hesse's sister Adele. “He writes remarkably many letters. His correspondence evidently compensates for something else.” In this sense the letters suggest a compulsive need for communication. But the fact that so much of his intellectual and spiritual energy went into letters rather than literary works suggests yet another dimension of meaning.
Hesse refused to establish a firm line between his life and his literary works. “If you regard literature as confessionâand that's the only way I can regard it at present,” Hesse confided in his “Diary of 1920,” then art amounts to the effort to express as fully as possible the personality of the artistic ego. “I gave up all aesthetic ambition years ago,” Hesse confessed in the same spirit to a correspondent in 1926, “and no longer write poetry but simply confession.”
Given this pronounced confessional tendency, it is surprising that Hesse undertook no real autobiographyâespecially since he was a fan of literary biography and developed detailed (though ultimately unrealized) plans to edit a series of classic German autobiographies. However, writings of a generally autobiographical nature occupy an increasingly important place in his oeuvre. During the twenties Hesse produced a number of brilliant autobiographical essays, including “A Guest at the Spa” and “The Journey to Nuremberg.” During the two decades between the publication of
The Glass Bead Game
(1943) and his death in 1962 Hesse wrote no further “fiction” as such, but he turned out a steady stream of autobiographical accounts ranging from reminiscences of childhood (“For Marulla”) to notes on a summer vacation (“Events in the Engadine”). (Many of these pieces have been collected in the volume
Hesse's obsession with autobiography was motivated by the symbolic view he held of his life. When Hugo Ball was commissioned by the publisher S. Fischer to write a biography to commemorate Hesse's fiftieth birthday, Hesse wrote to him (October 13, 1926): “If a biography of me makes any sense, it is probably because the private, incurable, but necessarily controlled neurosis of an intellectual person is also a symptom of the soul of the age [
].” The letters represent not only an act of communication with others but also a continuing record of Hesse's own lifeâthe raw materials underlying both his fiction and the artistically shaped autobiographical writings. In his letters we have the best account of the process of individuation that he attempted to portray symbolically in his novelsâthe integration of identity that leads, through disillusionment and crisis, by way of analysis, to a sense of unity and cosmopolitanism. In his letters, which are characterized by a relentless honesty, we have the best access to Hesse's intellectual and spiritual world as well as a lively account of the social world in which he lived and the European history that he witnessed.
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Hesse came by his confessional epistolary impulse naturally. The preoccupation with incessant self-scrutiny and confession is one of the hallmarks of the Pietism that dominated the spiritual life of that section of Europe in which he spent the first thirty-five years of his life: essentially, that corner of Germany and Switzerland between Basel and Stuttgart where people speak the Alemannic dialect that characterized Hesse's own speech. Hesse's maternal grandfather, Dr. Hermann Gundert (1814â1893), was a Swabian Pietist who spent twenty-four years in the service of the Basel Missionary Society on the Malabar Coast of India. Soon after his return to Europe in 1859 he became director of the Calw Missionary Press, one of the leading German publishers for the dissemination of theological writings. Gradually recognized as one of the leading European authorities on India, he continued his missionary efforts through such publications as a standard Malayalam grammar and a Malayalam-English dictionary as well as translations of the New Testament and parts of the Old Testament into Malayalam. His daughter Marie (1842â1902) married the missionary Charles Isenberg (1840â1870) and bore two sons, Theo and Karl, before she returned to her father's house in Calw following her husband's early death. Hesse's father, Johannes Hesse (1847â1916), was a Baltic German from Estonia who spent four years as a missionary on the Malabar Coast before he was compelled for reasons of health to return to Europe. There he was reassigned by the Basel Missionary Society to assist Dr. Gundert in Calw, where he met Gundert's widowed daughter, whom he soon married.
Marie, like her father, was a tireless writer who, in addition to letters and diaries, also turned out four popular booksâincluding a biography,
David Livingstone, the Friend of Africa
âfor the series “The Calw Family Library.” Johannes published fifteen books on edifying subjects, ranging from stories based on his experiences in India to training tracts for missionaries and admonitions to “slaves of masturbation.” It was into this family of incessantly writing Pietists, who filled their letters, journals, and books with ceaseless self-scrutiny, that Hermann Hesse was born in Calw on July 2, 1877, the second of four siblings: Adele, Hermann, Hans, and Marulla. Because the family never discarded any of the paper that they filled so compulsively with their perceptions and accounts, we have an unusually detailed record of Hesse's early years.
As early as 1881, when his father adopted Swiss citizenship and moved to Basel to teach at a school run by the Basel Missionary Society, Hermann's “violent temperament” was causing his parents great distress, as his mother noted worriedly in her diary. In June of 1883, Grandfather Gundert wrote to Johannes and Marie that “you must have a great deal of patience with Hermann,” consoling them with the thought that “it comes from God that our children give us puzzles that make us stand still in perplexity.” But only five months later Johannes wrote that Hermann, though a model of virtue at school, was often incorrigible at home. “As humiliating as it would be for us, I sometimes think very seriously that we ought to turn him over to an institution or to someone else's care.” Matters improved in 1886 when the family returned to Calw, where his father soon took over the Missionary Press from Grandfather Gundert, who remained until his death a powerful presence in young Hermann's life.
When he was twelve, Hesse was packed off to Rector Bauer's Latin School in GÃ¶ppingen to prepare himself for the regional examinations that constituted the entry barrier to the famous WÃ¼rttemberg school system in which generations of Swabian intellectuals, including the poets HÃ¶lderlin and MÃ¶rike and the philosophers Schelling and Hegel, had been educated. As a prerequisite for this free education, Hesse, alone among the members of his family, had to renounce his Swiss citizenship and become a citizen of WÃ¼rttembergâa move that was to cause considerable difficulty for Hesse during and after World War I.
During the year and a half at GÃ¶ppingen, later portrayed in his novel
Beneath the Wheel,
Hesse applied himself so diligently that he was among the privileged few who passed the examinations in the summer of 1891. He entered the seminary at Maulbronn, a beautifully preserved Cistercian monastery that was later to provide the setting for his medieval novel
Narcissus and Goldmund.
At first he responded enthusiastically to new friends and the excellent classical education offered to the aspiring young theologians and academicians. But within a few months the hyperactivity that had traumatized his parents reasserted itself. In March 1892 he ran away from school and had to be brought back by officers of the local constabulary. This episode was the prelude to such a severe fit of depression that in May his distraught parents withdrew him from Maulbronn.
For the next year and a half the future Nobel Prize winner was sent from one institution to another. First his parents turned him over to Christoph Blumhardt, a noted exorciser in Bad Boll, who tried to pray him back to health, with the perhaps not surprising result that the troubled youth tried to commit suicideâthe first of several attempts. Next he was sent to a home for weak-minded children in Stettin where, as part of his treatment for “moral insanity,” he worked in the garden and tutored less able classmates. Following a third abortive attempt, at a school in Basel, Hesse attended the Gymnasium in Cannstatt, where he managed to obtain a certificate of educational proficiency in July 1893. At that point Hesse, insisting that his only wish was to become a writer, persuaded his weary parents to take him out of school, and thus at age sixteen he ended his formal education along with all hope of following the traditional family footsteps into a theological or missionary career.
Initially Hesse signed on as a bookdealer's apprentice in Esslingen, but after three days ran away again and returned to Calw, where for half a year he scandalized the neighbors by his presence and his wild plans to emigrate to Brazil. From June 1894 to September of the following year Hesse settled down to the job of filing gears as an apprentice in Heinrich Perrot's tower-clock workshop in Calw, an experience that gave him a sympathetic insight into the mentality of the town and country folk who populate his early stories.
Finally Hesse seemed to find himself. Signing on as an apprentice in Heckenhauer's bookstore in the university town of TÃ¼bingen, he remained in the position for the four years necessary to receive his apprentice's letter. Moreover, his dream of becoming a writer began to materialize. His first poem was published in 1896; he found a coterie of compatible friends who styled themselves the
âLudwig Finckh, Otto Erich Faber, C. Hammelehle, and others mentioned from time to time in his letters; he devoted himself intensively to the study of German literature, especially Goethe and other writers of the Romantic age; and his first volume of poetry appeared late in 1898 under the revealing title
Hesse's correspondence with the writer Helene Voigt, the fiancÃ©e of the young publisher Eugen Diederichs, paved the way for the publication of his prose sketches
An Hour beyond Midnight
(1899). In September 1899, with his letter of apprenticeship in hand, Hesse moved to Basel, where he worked in Reich's bookstore until January 1901 and then, until 1903, in Wattenwyl's antiquarian bookstore. In this city dominated by the memory of the philosopher Nietzsche and the cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt, Hesse was introduced to a sophisticated circle of artists and intellectuals in the home of city archivist Rudolf Wackernagel. Meanwhile, he began to establish his own literary reputation with articles and reviews in Swiss newspapers and journals. Although his mother had disapproved of his
which she considered immoral, Hesse hoped to win her approval with the volume
which he dedicated to her in 1902. Unfortunately, she died shortly before their publication, yet Hesseâin the curious ambivalence that characterized so many of his family relationsâdid not even make the short trip to attend her funeral.