Hermann Hesse: Biography and Bibliography
by Joseph Mileck
University of California Press, 2 vols. 1,402 pp., $60.00
Hermann Hesse: Pilgrim of Crisis, A Biography
by Ralph Freedman
Pantheon, 432 pp., $15.00
Hermann Hesse became quite well known in Germany as early as 1904, when his short novel Peter Camenzind was published. Since 1945 his renown has spread across the world, yet in spite of his 1946 Nobel Prize his work is somehow not admitted into the canon of “great” twentieth-century German authors. Germans, at least, would be amused nowadays, or mildly astonished, if a foreigner were to mention him along with Thomas Mann, Hofmannsthal, Rilke, Kafka, or Brecht.
This is not only because readers now aged fifty or sixty and upward may not have read him since adolescence. Nor is it because the skeptical generations now between thirty and fifty have largely avoided him. Nor can it be entirely because his prose is too readable to be thought difficult enough to be important, although it is probable that younger writers today have not read him at all, let alone learned anything from him. It is partly because the canon has no place for a writer whose work, though a coherent whole, is so curiously mixed. It is sometimes cloying, sometimes profound, then quixotically unironic, then at once brisk, mysterious, and topical, and at other times, if not in his last two fictions, what Germans patronizingly call pubertär—and most of this in a prose that has a mercurial texture all its own.
The mixture does not seem to have vexed either American Hesse scholars or youth-culture fans who adopted him ten years ago. Nor has it embarrassed his Japanese readers (thirteen pages list translations in Joseph Mileck’s inclusive bibliography), or the Italians (thirty-five items in Mileck), or the Persian, Spanish, and Swedish readers. Most literary historians and critics outside Germany have taken the mixture in their stride. Ralph Freedman’s new biography shows that he does much the same, certain subdued doubts aside. It also shows, amply, how the mixture arose: out of a collision, in the tempestuous but wistful character of an exceedingly long-lived author (eighty-five when he died in 1962), between oddly blended family traits and the bloody history of this century.
Hesse was halfway through his twenty-second year when the century began. He had been by no means an ordinary child of the southwestern German Pietist missionary family from which he came—because he resisted, from early childhood on, the ruthless “breaking of self-will” that Pietist culture demanded. So he was sent away to a boarding school when he was six, and his education thereafter was confused, to say the least. He would conform for a few months, then break out, run away, or be sick and despondent. He had a terrible temper. At one stage he was parked in a school for backward children. His parents rigorous but not unkind, found him ungovernable; and yet, as a boy, Hesse seems to have found authority intolerable only so long as it frightened him into feeling guilty. Which was, inevitably, most of the time. There was no pleasure, in that world, and everything outside of work and worship …