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.
Steppenwolf contains a story embedded in several layers of framing stories. One man narrates the story of meeting a boarder name Harry Haller and finding his manuscript. That manuscript in narrated by Haller and describes his discovery of a treatise, which he then reprints in full, and his subsequent journey into a spiritual underworld where he has a kind of awakening. The treatise is about the Steppenwolf, a man of a dual nature, half civilized as half "wolf from the steppes" (ie, that is wolf-like, the barbarians to the east), and Haller's awakening, given as a fantastical journey into an underground club where he consorts with a androgyne, a beautiful prostitute and a man who plays dance music, consists of opening his life up to allow different kind of selves to have free expressions.
It does sound something like an acid trip, but I am guessing this is because of people like Leary adopting the language of Hesse to describe what were actually rather amorphous hallucinatory experiences, using it to give spiritual import to their drug use. This connection of Hesse to the golden age of LSD and and psychedelia has assured a certain permanent level of fame for him, but it has, I suspect, limited the range of interpretation given to his work.
Hesse came out of the intellectual climate of early-twentieth century Germany, the age of Geistegeschicte. I take my definition of that word from Norman F. Cantor, writing about the medievalists Ernst Schramm and Ernst Hartwig Kantorowicz, contemporaries of Hesse:
It stands for the dominant tradition in the learned humanities in Germany from the 1890s until 1933. It means placing in one's foreground past ideas, theory, and the literary and visual arts and making these spiritual and intellectual refinements, rather than material and social forces, the central concern of the historian. Geistegeschicte is a manifestation of German philosophical idealism and the assumption that ideas and learned traditions that perpetuate ideas have a durable reality and a human value separate from any other aspect of society.This was the philosophical tradition, descended from Kant and Hegel, that made it possible writer like Hesse to write about psychological and spiritual issues without any trace of self-consciousness, and for a German public to read him without feeling that such issues were anything but the most important. It is almost impossible to feel the same way now, as our literature has abandoned such topics to Rick Warren and Oprah. But Hesse's skill, most clearly found in the "Treatise on the Steppenwolf" of the novel, has to be admired. He writes clearly and cleverly about the difficulty of reconciling a life of ideas with a desire for simple comforts. Steppenwolf is not a simple journey from detached intellect into reality. It is the story of a basically good man, unable to join either the high intellectual tradition or an easy middle-class world. In the end he is reconciled to both.
This Geistegeshicte was also an intellectual style as much as a philosophical tradition. It prized intellectual monasticism, men with the money and the purity of soul required to lock themselves up in their private libraries and write big books. They were purely committed to art and ideas, and it was these kind of men, it was thought, who represented the great German tradition dating back to Goethe and Mozart. They had no time for the bourgeois things, for dance music or for women--for any of the things Haller discovers during his awakening. It is this particular model of intellectual pursuit that Hesse launches a kind of protest against, without wanting to abandon the products of it. He is passionate about his Goethe and his Mozart, and part of his spiritual discovery comes from conversation with those two "Immortals," as he calls them, where he discovers their ability to laugh. In doing so, he disconnects them, the true greats, from a deadened intellectual class that wrongly claims them as their own.
The overly bookish, monkish intellectual tradition was criticized by other German-language writers. In Doctor Faustus, Thomas Mann blamed this inward-turned detachment from reality for German's descent into the Nazi hysteria, and it is subject to a harsh satire in Elias Canetti's Auto-da-Fe. And in its criticisms of the hypocrisy of the bourgeois intellectual community, Steppenwolf is also reminiscent of Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground (at least in Joseph Frank's sociological interpretation). The scene in which Haller storms out of a dinner party because he is disgusted by a perceived slight to Goethe is reminiscent of Dostoevsky's scene in which the narrator storms out of a party with his friends. And the structures of the two works, moving from psychological analysis of an individual to a story of interaction with the world ending with time with a prostitute, are too close for me to think them entirely coincidental.
My point is only that Hesse's book fits in with the intellectual trends of the Germany of his own time and the generation before him. And those trends would strangely be echoed in the mid-century United States. The 1960s student movement was similar in its protests again a lifeless suit-and-tie professorial intellectualism that had come to prominence in the 1950s, trying to sanitize American history into a pleasant suit-and-tie tradition. At the same time young people saw that these intellectuals were all too happy to accommodate a national military buildup that was beginning to taint the university. My own generation is not a Hesse-friendly generation, as it seems utterly comfortable with both the university situation and the opportunities for bourgeois comfort, though there are always a few of us who are not quite happy with either.
Steppenwolf is either impressive for the easy prose dealing with difficult issues or mediocre for reducing the difficult issues to easy prose. I'd say that either way, it's easy prose, and whatever its spiritual merits, is worth the couple hours it takes. Its also a good reminder of how literary and cultural situations can fade, but also how thay can recur.