Hermann Hesse wrote Demian over three very fruitful weeks in September and October 1917. The pseudonym Emil Sinclair, also the narrator’s name, was chosen in homage to writer and diplomat Isaac von Sinclair (1775-1815). Hesse’s five previous novels hadn’t sold as well as he’d hoped for, and he didn’t want “to scare off the young by the well-known name of an old uncle.” He also wanted readers to believe “he who wrote this poetry…was not Hesse, the author of so and so many books, but another person who had experienced something new and was approaching something new.”
In autumn 1917, Hesse contacted publisher Samuel Fischer and pretended Demian had been written by a terminally ill young writer who wanted to stay anonymous. Thus, Emil Sinclair was a pseudonym twice over.
Hesse had previously used the name for some of his anti war essays, and later used it again for the 1918 essay Eigensinn (Self-Will or Obstinancy). With this pen name, he wanted to signify the start of a new life for himself.
Editor Oskar Loerke liked the manuscript very much, and Fischer agreed to publish it. From February to April 1919, Demian made its début in the literary magazine Die Neue Rundschau, and came out as a book in June.
Copies were flying off the shelves, and printers could barely keep pace with the wild demand. Its popularity and wide critical acclaim won Hesse the Fontane Prize for a first novel. An entire generation of people shocked and traumatized by World War One and the resulting social upheavals deeply connected to this story, in a way they perhaps wouldn’t have had they known it was written by a 40-year-old.
This ruse couldn’t last forever, however. Samuel Fischer’s wife Hedwig was among the first people to guess the author’s true identity, and she repeatedly asked him to confide the truth to her friend Toni Flake, wife of writer Otto Flake. Hesse also privately told his psychotherapist Josef Lang, Samuel Fisher, and a few friends.
Hesse additionally told Lang, “I would prefer to publish every new work under a new pseudonym. I’m not Hesse, but was Sinclair, was Klingsor, was Klein, etc., and will be many things in future.”
On 4 July 1920, Otto Flake and literary critic Eduard Korrodi published an open letter “To Hermann Hesse” in the journal Vivos Voco, proving he was the real author based upon style analyses and comparisons to Hesse’s known earlier works.
Once the truth was out, Hesse had no choice but to return the Fontane Prize. Demian was published under his name from the fourth edition forward.
Though Hesse’s writings were classified as undesirable by the Nazis in 1936, and Samuel Fischer was ordered to stop publishing his books in 1942, Hesse was never actually a formally banned writer. Some of his books even came out in new editions during the Nazi régime.
After the war, Hesse enjoyed a fresh wave of popularity, not just because he won the Nobel Prize in 1946, but because his stories, characters, and themes spoke so personally to this new generation also traumatized and forever changed by war, people who desperately wanted to find themselves.
In 1947, Thomas Mann wrote an introduction to the U.S. edition of Demian, which is included in many translations to this day.
Sadly, this new popularity was short-lived, and by 1950, Hesse was being derided as kitschy, average, ridiculously sensitive, sugar-romantic, and too full of self-doubt. This was due in part to Germany’s economic boom during the war recovery years, when, as in the U.S., mindless conformity was heavily championed and individualism seen as deeply suspect.
Hesse achieved yet another wave of popularity in the U.S. during the 1960s and 1970s, as his works spoke very profoundly to the countercultural movement and the latest generation awash in trauma, confusion, pain, and radical divorce from the old world. The Eastern philosophy he so loved was also very much in vogue. Demian was one of his most popular novels during this period.
Before long, Hesse’s American popularity translated back into Germany, and today Demian is considered one of the indispensable classics of German literature. To date, it’s been translated into at least 27 languages.
Surprisingly, the book has also become very popular in South Korea in recent years, particularly among the under-30 set, because the K-Pop boygroup BTS quoted it in a bunch of their songs and music videos.