'Steppenwolf' is a product of Hesse's mid-life crisis. Published in German in 1927, it was translated into English within two years. At the time of writing, Hesse had already become a Swiss citizen. His reputation in Germany was low because of his unpopular anti-militarist views, and his personal life was in a state of disarray. He had been plagued by depressive episodes since childhood. It is perhaps unsurprising that he responded by writing a highly autobiographical novel about a social outcast, an internal exile from the bourgeoisie, who is undergoing a spiritual crisis and, as he approaches fifty with no end in sight, is contemplating suicide.
The novel enjoyed mixed fortunes before being picked up - along with Hesse's other work, almost all of which was completed before 1945 - by American countercultural figures during the 1960s. By the 1970s, the revival of Hesse in the United States had fed back into Germany, and the author's revived reputation was matched by heavy sales and wide translation. 'Steppenwolf' had become a key title in the countercultural library.
Hesse noted just before his death in 1962 that the novel was the most misunderstood of all his works, and drew particular attention to the fact that although it dealt with the problems of middle age it had been seized upon by the young. In particular, the openness with which the novel discusses the use of mood-altering drugs and states of altered consciousness, and its frank references to bisexuality and sexual freedom, allied to Hesse's anti-war message, made 'Steppenwolf' read as a precursor text for the 'Sixties underground. As an insight into a particular kind of modern psychological crisis, the novel still packs something of a punch, and the reader will find that it is worth persisting.
Hesse was unusually open-minded and eclectic in his approach to sources of ideas, mixing Buddhism with Schopenhauer, Indian philosophy with Nietzsche and Jung; and he was a pioneer in diagnosing the sickness of his society in a way that spoke loudly to young Americans during the Vietnam years. The result in 'Steppenwolf' is an extended fable with serious intellectual and spiritual ambitions that still escapes the circumstances of its composition and has something to offer to later readers.
Important: this modern, smooth, accurate 2012 Penguin edition finally supplants the much criticised, anachronistic, stiff, rather faulty 1929 translation, inadequately revised in 1963, which was showing its age almost on publication and has done Hesse few favours with English-speaking readers. In 2010 a new translation of Steppenwolf from Algora by Thomas Wayne appeared that claimed to be more modern, literal and complete than the Creighton translation. However, it is also more expensive: so this new David Horrocks translation, which one imagines is Penguin's response to the Wayne version, is now the preferred version. As a result, the English-speaking reader can now read 'Steppenwolf' as a novel written in the 1920s rather than the 1880s.
[It appears that the older Penguin Creighton version may also still be available from some sources, and the interested reader should be careful that they have the 2012 Horrocks version.]