Saturday, September 3, 2011

Hermann Hesse -- STEPPENWOLF

Hermann Hesse's fame has lasted, though he is surely not quite as highly regarded as he once was.  My three dollar mass-market paperback copy of Steppenwolf, for instance, asks and answers a question about his once massive popularity: "Why has one European writer, Hermann Hesse, captured the imagination and loyalty of a whole generation of Americans? Because he is a vital spiritual force . . ." Of course, maybe the "whole generation" phrase hints that even the writer of the book's copy (I should note that my edition is from some forty years after the original German publication) knew that Hesse's fame would not stay quite so immense forever. Nowadays he is regarded as a J.D. Salinger for a deeper crowd, the discontented adolescent who sees phoniness everywhere but, instead of whining humorously, turns to the things of the spirit. 

Steppenwolf is maybe his best known novel, though at this point in time, it's hard to know if that's just well-known because so many people like the songs "Magic Carpet Ride" and "Born to be Wild," songs by the band Steppenwolf, both still mainstays of classic rock radio (and the latter, I just learned, the source of the phrase "heavy metal"). Those song titles, incidentally, seem perfectly in line with the Hesse's fascinations with man's complicated inner nature and with the wisdom of the East. What is fascinating is that Hesse's novel, growing out of his own history in early twentieth century Germany, should have so much resonance the mid-century American generation. Steppenwolf was, I read, Timothy Leary's favorite, and one guesses that Timothy Leary was popular among many who were reading Hesse in the 1960s and 1970s.