Patrick Connelly is associate professor of history and director of the Honors Program at Montreat College. This is a reblog from books and culture.com. He reviews Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s American Nietzsche: The History of an Icon and His Ideas below.
Zarathustra in America.
The tragic and ironic final chapter of Friedrich Nietzsche’s life began with a spectacular collapse into debilitating insanity on the streets of Turin, Italy. It ended with the incapacitated philosopher occupying the second floor of a Weimar villa that housed the archives from which his sister Elizabeth would assume controversial control over his legacy. Prior to his breakdown, Nietzsche balanced his expectation of being a seer and facilitator of a civilizational crisis with the conviction that he was criminally underappreciated in his lifetime.
The European “Nietzsche vogue” of his incomprehensible final years, however, gave credence to the notion that his time had indeed come. Among the witnesses of this phenomenon was Wilbur Urban, an American doctoral student at the University of Leipzig and son of an Episcopal priest who discovered The Genealogy of Morals in a local bookstore. Urban later described the resulting personal encounter with Nietzsche’s ideas, as he read through the night and undertook an intellectual and spiritual reevaluation of everything he held dear.
Urban’s experience of reading Nietzsche is recounted in Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s richly textured and absorbing American Nietzsche: The History of an Icon and His Ideas. The juxtaposition of Nietzsche near death in Weimar with a young American graduate student transfixed by his writings just miles away captures the importance of biography in Ratner-Rosenhagen’s account. Nietzsche’s “persona” became a focal point for readers and reviewers who “interpreted his philosophy through the lens of his biography.”
Yet American Nietzsche is also about the stories, emotions, and longings of Nietzsche’s readers and the “strong affective dimension” involved in how his ideas were received. The act of reading Nietzsche is narrated through published sources, personal recollections, marginalia, and fan letters written to Nietzsche and his sister. They give evidence of a thinker who struck a nerve with American readers due to his unconventional biography and singular vision of a modern world without foundations.
“Antifoundationalism” is a foundational idea in American Nietzsche, which explores how a motley crew of readers in the United States appropriated Nietzsche’s “denial of universal truth” in a distinctly American context. Academic philosophers, literary radicals, clergy, and political thinkers of various stripes are among the cast of characters concerned with the implications of Nietzsche’s ideas for “the moral and cultural grounds” of modern Americans. Ratner-Rosenhagen draws a portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche helping Americans understand themselves. This transatlantic intellectual and cultural exchange began, as Ratner-Rosenhagen tells the story, with an American thinker providing a transformative reading experience for Nietzsche himself.
Other commentators have noted Ralph Waldo Emerson’s influence on Nietzsche and discussed the affinities between the two thinkers, but no one has made such a forceful case that Nietzsche’s encounter with Emerson was so decisive and transformative. Ratner-Rosenhagen analyzes Nietzsche’s heavily annotated reading copy of Emerson’s Essays and notebook of Emerson quotations.
She credits Emerson with teaching Nietzsche about the “external forces that constrain individual autonomy.” Emerson is presented as providing Nietzsche with the example of the intellectual as provocateur, as one who doesn’t provide direct answers but provokes from a position “without inherited faith, without institutional affiliation, without rock or refuge for his truth claims.” Emerson’s influence, Ratner-Rosenhagen speculates, was particularly crucial in Nietzsche’s loss of faith, with his discovery of Emerson seemingly “the turning point” leading to his decision to abandon Christianity.
Nietzsche biographers may wonder whether Ratner-Rosenhagen overstates Emerson’s role in Nietzsche’s personal and professional development (a recent biography by Julian Young contains only two references to Emerson in 562 pages of text), but American Nietzsche persuasively portrays Emerson as the “exemplar of the aboriginal intellect” abroad who helped Nietzsche to feel at home. It was a favor that Nietzsche would return to American readers in the decades to come.
Ratner-Rosenhagen does not exhaustively record every reference to Nietzsche in American print, though she examines in great detail how Americans experienced Nietzsche’s ideas. Her thematic and somewhat chronological survey begins with “the making of the American Nietzsche” by literary radicals and cultural critics. Literary radicals fretted over the state of American culture while hoping for a “cosmopolitanism” that would look to the example of Europe, which they believed had already been transformed by Nietzsche’s “challenge to all external authority.”
H. L. Mencken was among an eclectic group of cultural critics who focused on “the persona of Nietzsche.” Mencken’s influential monograph on Nietzsche refashioned the philosopher in Mencken’s image while suggesting that Americans desperately needed Nietzsche’s “fearless independence and fierce intelligence.” American Nietzsche later returns to the allure that Nietzsche contained for literary radicals and critics. Once again, Nietzsche’s biography educates these enthusiasts, who gravitated toward his paradigm of “the unaffiliated intellectual” changing the world through “literary expression and the social efficacy of ideas.” Writers and activists such as Emma Goldman, Kahlil Gibran, Randolph Bourne, and Walter Lippmann drew deeply from Nietzsche’s model of “the antifoundational intellect” and expressed hope that he could help them renew an impoverished American culture.
Mencken and other critics believed that religion was significantly to blame for that cultural poverty and were gripped by Nietzsche’s extraordinary attack on Christianity. The repercussions of Nietzsche’s critique were taken up by American clergy and theologians, who used the occasion to take inventory of Christianity’s future prospects and “to reassert their flagging moral authority in modernizing America.” Ratner-Rosenhagen’s account of Nietzsche’s religious readers is heavily weighted toward liberal Protestants and Social Gospelers, though she does consider Catholic apologists who viewed Nietzsche as the natural consequence of Protestantism.
Liberal Protestants and Social Gospelers understood Nietzsche as a “fellow seeker” and a “challenging doubter” who remained a vital instrument “for refitting their faith to the modern world.” Protestants less interested in this refitting, with a few exceptions, remain largely on the sidelines in American Nietzsche. Conservative Protestants are mentioned, but their collective perception of Nietzsche as an insidious force in the culture-shaping institutions of Germany and the United States remains underdeveloped.
Fundamentalists, who frequently lumped together Nietzsche and Darwin, are virtually absent from Ratner-Rosenhagen’s story. The addition of these neglected constituencies would strengthen the case that Protestants of all theological persuasions worried about the prospect of a civilization adrift from Christian foundations — even if they defined the problem and solution differently.
“A world after God” meant the arrival of the Übermensch for Nietzsche and his enthusiasts. The most ambitious section of American Nietzsche unites seemingly disparate individuals, discourses, and events around their fascination with one of Nietzsche’s signature ideas. Harvard philosophers, political radicals, and conservative New Humanists are portrayed as wrestling with the possibilities and limitations of the superman.
Nietzsche’s Übermensch later appeared in wartime debates less as a “constructive ideal” in antifoundational discourse than “a symbol for the German imperial temper.” The Übermensch seeped into the popular imagination through events such as the Leopold-Loeb trial, where the defendants murdered a boy due to their belief that “they were Nietzschean supermen.” Ratner-Rosenhagen makes a good case for the importance of the Übermensch for American readers, though as an interpretive construct it occasionally feels stretched.
Creating a coherent narrative is an arduous task for any reception study, of course, let alone one regarding a remarkably pliant thinker like Nietzsche. Ratner-Rosenhagen’s post-World War II examinations of the American reception illustrate that elasticity by focusing on the creation of numerous Nietzsches.
Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche was liberated from the taint of National Socialism, established as a serious philosopher who negotiated the analytic/existentialist divide in professional philosophy, and credited with transforming “American cold war culture” and fueling the discontent of the Sixties. Harold Bloom’s Nietzsche helped the critic move beyond the postmodern literary theories of Europe while enabling America to embrace its “alienated majesty” in a world without authorities beyond the self.
Richard Rorty’s Nietzsche inspired a “pragmatic antifoundationalism” that explored the tensions between self-creation and social solidarity in a world shorn of transcendent grounding. Stanley Cavell’s Nietzsche served as “a midwife of Emersonian philosophy” who helped Americans to rediscover their native antifoundational thinking. Allan Bloom’s Nietzsche was misappropriated to sustain “an unwholesome, lighthearted and softheaded ‘nihilism with a happy ending.’ “
Given these and other appropriations, can the real Nietzsche be discerned in an America awash in Nietzsches? It certainly goes against the grain of many of the thinkers discussed in American Nietzsche to suggest that a single understanding of Nietzsche is necessary or even possible. Epistemological and critical humility are needed — we do, after all, see through a glass darkly — but it is difficult to criticize misappropriations or misunderstandings of Nietzsche without having some sense of what he meant. This is especially challenging for a reception study.
Ratner-Rosenhagen contends that her book “is not even a book about Nietzsche” but rather “about his crucial role in the ever-dynamic remaking of modern American thought.” American Nietzsche is certainly about the latter — and engagingly so — but it is about Nietzsche as well. Ratner-Rosenhagen resists a full-fledged exposition of Nietzsche’s ideas, though she does selectively elaborate, taking several opportunities to correct perceived misreadings and resisting fashionable assumptions about the “death of the author.”
The emphasis on the act of reading Nietzsche also leads to questions about how to understand the cultural and intellectual setting those acts transformed. What impact did Nietzsche have on American culture as a whole, as opposed to select individuals? One instance where this issue becomes problematic is Ratner-Rosenhagen’s discussion of celebrity.
She discusses, in fascinating detail, letters from the Nietzsche Archive that were written to Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche by her brother’s American fans. Ratner-Rosenhagen suggests that the letters reveal “Nietzsche’s emergence as a celebrity in American culture.” Historians of celebrity, she argues, have focused inordinate attention on musicians and actors and their respective industries while neglecting the emergence of “the prophetic thinker” as celebrity. But it is difficult to see how a relatively small sample of letters can be used as evidence of celebrity, which by its very nature is about mass appeal and consumption.
How then does one gauge Nietzsche’s broader impact on American culture? Ratner-Rosenhagen provides much food for thought on this question throughout American Nietzsche, particularly when she discerns a larger popular effect as in the case of Walter Kaufmann’s monograph and translations. I wonder whether a more specific distillation of the notion of cultural authority would be instructive as well.
“Cultural authority” is an amorphous term that sociologists and historians have used more than defined. It involves the authority of individuals, ideas, and institutions to promote certain understandings of meaning and values in the culture at large and to shape core assumptions about God, human personhood, social and political order, science, economics, law, and other spheres of public and private life.
Protestant Christianity had long informed the American cultural milieu but faced substantial challenges to its authority by the time Nietzsche’s ideas first registered in the United States. Sociologist Christian Smith writes that a “secular revolution” was afoot, involving “secularizing activists” seeking “to overthrow a religious establishment’s control over socially legitimate knowledge.” Many of the same American academics, critics, activists, and clergy who appear in American Nietzsche were participants in the seismic shifts of authority in culture-shaping institutions.
Nietzsche’s early American admirers may have questioned whether the European “Nietzsche vogue” would take root in the United States, but they recognized his awareness of and contribution to the larger story of secularism. William Mackintire Salter wrote in 1917 that “a subtle, slow secular revolution in the mental and moral realm was what Nietzsche had in mind.”
Nietzsche himself realized that uprooting Christianity’s cultural authority was a long historical process involving more than simply rejecting traditional beliefs. It would be overreaching, of course, to suggest that Nietzsche’s ideas singlehandedly accomplished this revolutionary aim in the United States, but many of the subjects of Ratner-Rosenhagen’s book were willing to utilize his ideas to accelerate the process.
The result of this secular revolution, along with the rise of competing authorities and understandings of the world, meant further openings were created for Nietzsche’s antifoundationalism to gain a hearing in the decades to come. Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s wonderfully written and stimulating American Nietzsche compels us to reckon not only with what he said, but with what we have become.