Hermann Hesse began writing Steppenwolf in Basel in 1925, during a period of deep despair and personal crisis. He had separated from his second wife, Ruth Wegner, almost as soon as they married in 1924. Not only did they spend very little time living together, the marriage reportedly was also unconsummated. Hesse struggled with depression and feelings of isolation throughout his life, and this episode plunged him into deeper and deeper despair which culminated in suicidal thoughts.
Hesse wrote in his journal, “I’m giving up everything, my life […] I’m an aging man. To react to your world in any other way than by dying or by the Steppenwolf would be a betrayal of all that is sacred.”
Reportedly, the wolf signet on the house façade painted by Burckhard Mangold at Spalenberg 22 in Basel inspired Hesse’s title. Most of the novel was written in Basel’s Hotel Krafft, though it was completed in Zürich.
To try to overcome his personal demons, Hesse resumed psychotherapy with Josef Lang, a disciple of Carl Jung, as he was writing Steppenwolf. Anyone who knows anything about Jungian philosophy will easily see its strong influence in the book, particularly the Magic Theatre in the final section.
Jung’s theories and practices heavily drew from dream analysis, the collective unconsciousness, metaphysics, the paranormal, mythology, astrology, gnosticism, anima and animus (i.e., the unconscious feminine side of a man and the unconscious masculine side of a woman), archetypes, repressed aspects of our personalities, spirituality, art and dance therapy, and the persona (i.e., a consciously-created identity or personality influenced by the collective psyche via life experience, socialization, and acculturation). After Steppenwolf was published, Jung also got into alchemy.
Another big influence on Hesse’s story was jazz music, which he became a fan of in 1926. The character of Pablo was based on Sidney Bechet, a saxophonist and clarinetist then touring Switzerland.
Steppenwolf first appeared in the esteemed German literary journal Neue Rundschau in November 1926, and “Treatise on the Steppenwolf” was published as a preprint teaser in May 1927. Hesse’s publisher, Samuel Fischer Verlag, published the entire thing in book format in June 1927.
The first English translation appeared in 1929, and the first paperback edition came out in 1963.
Hesse wrote a spin-off short story in 1928, “Harry, the Steppenwolf,” about a wolf named Harry who’s kept in captivity in a zoo and entertains visitors by destroying images of German cultural icons like Mozart and Goethe.
Steppenwolf became the dozenth book in the German-language Manesse Library of World Literature series in 1946, which started in 1944. Most of the volumes in this series get the royal treatment as gold-leafed hardcovers with luxurious paper, binding threads, gilded covers, and attached ribbon bookmarks. Each book has an afterword by a contemporary writer, literary scholar, or literary critic.
Steppenwolf was added to the Suhrkamp Library series in 1969, a series created by German publisher Peter Suhrkamp as “a lovers’ library for an elite readership,” with a focus on 20th century literature. The first six volumes selected were edited by Hr. Suhrkamp himself, and the very first book of the series was Hesse’s Journey to the East. Over the years, many of Hesse’s other works have been added to this series.
A second edition of Steppenwolf in the Suhrkamp Library came out in 1985, illustrated with fifteen watercolours by Gunter Böhmer.
In 1978, Steppenwolf was included in the ZEIT Library of 100 Books, a collection of important, classic world literature chosen by a six-member jury and meant to interest people in reading. Only one book by each author on the list was allowed. A book edition of the essays about these books, originally published in the weekly German newspaper Die Zeit, came out in 1980.
This list and the accompanying essays were so successful, a list of 100 great nonfiction books was created in 1984. In 2002 and 2003, a list of 50 German-language works for children came out.
In the preface to the 1961 edition, Hesse wrote that this book was “more often and more violently misunderstood” than anything else he’d ever written. Most readers seemed to focus on the depression, despair, and suffering instead of Harry’s spiritual and psychological healing and determination to improve his life and start doing things differently.
Many of Hesse’s friends and longtime readers thought Steppenwolf celebrated so-called immorality because of its depiction of drug use and non-marital sex, a criticism which continued for many decades. By modern standards, those things are so tame! It’s not like there are any graphic sex scenes or detailed descriptions of using drugs and getting high.
Guess what, neo-Puritans: Real life ain’t a G-rated Disney movie where everything is glitter, daisies, kittens, rainbows, and puppies.
In 1974, the book was adapted to the silver screen, starring Max von Sydow as Harry, Dominique Sanda as Hermine, Pierre Clémenti as Pablo, and Carla Romanelli as Maria. It was in pre-production for seven years due to negotiations with the Hesse family over film rights and the complicated planning that went into making “the first Jungian film.”
Before von Sydow was cast, Timothy Leary, Jack Lemmon, and Walter Matthau were proposed.
Over the decades, many songs have referenced or been inspired by Steppenwolf, and there have been many literary references as well. The American–Canadian rock band Steppenwolf and the Danish rock band Steppeulvene, both formed in 1967, also took their names from the novel.
In 1967, the Magic Theatre Company of San Francisco was founded, and the Steppenwolf Theatre Company was founded in Chicago in 1974.
And of course, the title of this blog and my old Angelfire website, Welcome to My Magick Theatre, also comes from the book.