Excerpt from the Introduction, Veneration and Revolt: Hermann Hesse and Swabian Pietism by Barry Stephenson
Hesse was born, raised, and educated in a Pietist culture—and this context is the basis for any thorough discussion of Hesse’s literature. Hesse’s emphasis on introspection and religious subjectivity; his autobiographical and confessional literary style; his ethic of self-will; his aesthetics and efforts to unify artistic and religious impulses; his conception of God; his implicit epistemology and anthropology; his moral and political views; the skepticism and cynicism with which he viewed bourgeois, fin de siècle German culture; his chiliasm and utopianism; his pluralist, ecumenical outlook; his speculative mysticism; his criticism of church and state; his conception of a spiritual realm of immortal beings; his preoccupation with the themes of sin, grace, and guilt—all these aspects of Hesse’s thought and style, embodied in his literary works, owe something to and are worked out in relation to Pietism and Protestant culture.
In Part I, I develop the cultural and biographical contexts that inform Hesse’s lifelong reflection on Pietism. The remaining three sections follow the chronological appearance of Hesse’s major novels. These are generally recognized as Peter Camenzind (1904), Unterm Rad [Beneath the Wheel] (1906), Demian (1919), Siddhartha (1922), Der Steppenwolf (1927), Narziss und Goldmund (1930), Die Morgenlandfahrt [The Journey to the East] (1932), and Das Glasperlenspiel [The Glass Bead Game] (1943). Where appropriate, I will draw on other works from Hesse’s corpus—letters, essays, and short stories—as well as the secondary literature on Hesse.
I have divided my study of Hesse’s novels into three parts. The title of these sections suggests a developmental movement in Hesse’s relationship to Pietism: “Setting Out,” “Turning Back”, and “Coming Home.” Such a circular movement on Hesse’s part was by no means neat and tidy. At the end of his life, Hesse had not achieved a complete rapprochement with the “faith of the fathers,” but neither had he completely abandoned it in the wake of the Maulbronn affair. The course of any life typically belies harmonious, uncomplicated movement. Still, if we consider Hesse’s corpus as a whole, his “back and forth” was not one of being stuck in the mud, lurching forward only to be pulled back in. If Pietism was an obstacle to be overcome, it was no less a fundamental condition and context of Hesse’s thought, a fact that Hesse became increasingly cognizant of as he matured as a writer. Hesse’s novels reveal his lifelong Auseinandersetzung with his Pietist heritage, but they also reveal an Entwicklungsgeschichte, a developmental story of flight, recovery, and return.
They also reveal a purpose and a hope. In a late letter to his cousin Wilhelm Gundert, Hesse discusses how both men received something of the spirit and character of their grandfather’s generation, through their work formed and shaped that inheritance anew, and in so doing passed it on to the next generation—“the tradition will not end.” If I imagine Hesse picking up this book—perhaps intrigued by the title—my hope is that he would conclude somebody has finally done justice to recognizing and pointing out the threads of Pietism woven into his fiction and his life.