The Virtuous Cycle of Gratitude and Mutual Appreciation: The Letters of Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann
By Maria Popova
In a culture that makes it easier to be a critic than a celebrator, where it takes growing commitment to do the opposite, how heartening to be reminded of the ennobling gift of gratitude, of the elevating capacity of being one another’s champion — reminders like Charles Bukowski’s letter of gratitude to his greatest champion or Emerson’s epistolary encouragement to young Walt Whitman or Leonard Bernstein’s note of appreciation to his mentor or Isaac Asimov’s fan mail to young Carl Sagan or Charles Dickens’s flattering letter to George Eliot.
That’s precisely what two of the twentieth century’s greatest authors, Nobel laureates Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann, did for each other over the course of five decades — even though they came from opposite corners of Germany and went on to lead starkly different lives, Hesse an exponent of the quiet contemplation and Mann a public intellectual with a vibrant social life. But they also had a great deal in common — both had rebelled against their bourgeois background by dropping out of school and taking working-class jobs — Hesse at a second-hand bookstore and Mann as an insurance agent — before becoming prominent writers; both had mothers who brought into their otherwise ordinary German childhoods an exotic perspective — Mann’s was born in Brazil and Hesse’s in India.
But what brought them together, above all, were their convictions. Bound by a shared commitment to humanism and an unflinching belief in the integrity of the individual, they stood by one another’s work, both privately and publicly, through war and exile, through harsh criticism, even through their own philosophical disagreements. The record of this virtuous cycle of mutual support is preserved in the wonderful out-of-print 1975 volume The Hesse/Mann Letters: The Correspondence of Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann 1910–1955 (public library).
In January of 1928, a year before he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, Mann writes after receiving a limited-edition collection of forty-five of Hesse’s poems:
Dear Herr Hesse,
Thank you — I take it as an honor — for sending me these poems, whose atmosphere will not appeal to everyone. You were right in supposing that they would meet with my inward understanding.
In the same letter, Mann pays a beautiful compliment to Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf, which had debuted a few months earlier and which was the first major work that put him on a track to his own Nobel Prize two decades later, in no small part thanks to Mann’s repeated and generous nominations:
I am getting more and more cranky and difficult in matters of reading; most of what I see leaves me cold. Steppenwolf has shown me once again, for the first time in ages, what reading can be.
The admiration was mutual. In a letter from March of 1932, Hesse writes to Mann after reading his lecture-turned-essay on Goethe and Tolstoy:
Once again I have admired … the courage and vigor with which, contrary to all German custom, you are at pains not to attenuate, simplify and whitewash, but precisely to stress and deepen the tragic problems.
In short, I wish to thank you for the great pleasure your book has given me.
At the end of 1933, after Mann writes to Hesse about another one of his poems, “so full of wisdom and kindness,” Hesse responds with equal generosity of spirit in commending Mann on the first novel of his Joseph and His Brothers tetralogy:
I should like at least to thank you for the great pleasure your book gave me… As a contrast to prevailing conceptions of history and historiography, I loved every bit of the faintly melancholy irony with which in the last analysis you view the whole problem of history and narration, though you never for a moment flag in your endeavor to do what you have recognized to be fundamentally impossible, that is, to write history. To me, who differ from you in many respects and have been molded by different origins, just this is profoundly congenial, for I well know that it is to attempt the impossible, while knowing it to be impossible, to take the tragic actively upon oneself. Besides, this quiet book comes as a god-send in times so cluttered with stupid current events!
Mann’s novel was met with harsh criticism, which rendered Hesse’s encouraging letter particularly vitalizing for the author — in a letter sent a few days later, Mann speaks to the power of kindness amid criticism, which all who have endured such public attacks appreciate deeply when present and long for painfully when absent:
[You] can imagine the insolence and stupidity with which the reviewers, almost without exception, have reacted to the book. It is both pitiful and shocking to observe such — by now unconscious — intellectual submissiveness and emasculation in men one has known. The kindness and acuteness with which you have responded … has moved me deeply, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your comforting lines…
In the same letter, Mann adds a sentiment as true of the art of appreciation as of art itself:
When you come right down to it, the beautiful exists only in such traces of dream-daring, which a work of art brings with it from its spiritual home.
In May of 1934, Mann returns the gesture after reading Hesse’s novella “The Rainmaker,” which Hesse would later incorporate in his last novel, The Glass Bead Game, published in 1943 after a decade of rejections due to Hesse’s anti-Nazi convictions:
What a beautiful piece of workmanship your novella is — there is no longer anything like it in Germany. And how humanely it deals with the primitive era, without groveling to it, as it has become so inanely fashionable to do. The “much larger whole” of which this is a part will be magnificent work! — I take my leave with hearty congratulations!
In August of the same year, after Hesse sends Mann a small selection of his poetry as a gift, Mann — who by that point had grown gravely dejected and disheartened by the Nazi’s rise to power — responds with exuberant appreciation:
What a treasure trove of melodies! What pure art! A true comfort to the languishing soul. These words have a general validity, but I also mean them personally, not easy by way of an excuse for this niggardly expression of gratitude. I am in the midst of a grave crisis, both in my life and in my work. I am so plagued by the happenings in Germany, they are such a torment to my moral and critical conscience, that I seem to be unable to carry on with my current literary work.
And yet carry on he does, encouraged by Hesse. Several months later, Mann sends to his friend and champion the ultimate note of appreciation-for-appreciation, speaking to this enormously vitalizing virtuous cycle of mutual respect and admiration that is available to all who choose to welcome and celebrate one another’s kinship of spirit:
My emotion and joy were great and proved to me once again how profoundly receptive I am to kindness and understanding. How could I help taking pride in the good opinion of a man whose art and thinking I approve with all my heart?
Although The Hesse/Mann Letters is long out of print, used copies are still available and are very much worth the hunt — to witness two great minds and expansive spirits come together around art, literature, politics, and philosophy is nothing short of a gift.
Published October 8, 2014