American Nietzsche

A history of an icon and his ideas

Jenifer Ratner-Rosenhagen


ISBN-13: 978-0-226-70584-2 (e-book)

If you were looking for a philosopher likely to appeal to Americans, Friedrich Nietzsche would be far from your first choice. After all, in his blazing career, Nietzsche took aim at nearly all the foundations of modern American life: Christian morality, the Enlightenment faith in reason, and the idea of human equality. Despite that, for more than a century Nietzsche has been a hugely popular—and surprisingly influential—figure in American thought and culture.

In American Nietzsche, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen delves deeply into Nietzsche’s philosophy, and America’s reception of it, to tell the story of his curious appeal. Beginning her account with Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom the seventeen-year-old Nietzsche read fervently, she shows how Nietzsche’s ideas first burst on American shores at the turn of the twentieth century, and how they continued  alternately to invigorate and to shock Americans for the century to come. She also delineates the broader intellectual and cultural contexts within which a wide array of commentators—academic and armchair philosophers, theologians and atheists, romantic poets and hard-nosed empiricists, and political ideologues and apostates from the Left and the Right—drew insight and inspiration from Nietzsche’s claims for the death of God, his challenge to universal truth, and his insistence on the interpretive nature of all human thought and beliefs. At the same time, she explores how his image as an iconoclastic immoralist was put to work in American popular culture, making Nietzsche an unlikely posthumous celebrity capable of inspiring both teenagers and scholars alike.

A  penetrating examination of a powerful but little-explored undercurrent of twentieth-century American thought and culture, American Nietzsche dramatically recasts our understanding of American intellectual life—and puts Nietzsche squarely at its heart.


Transatlantic Crossings: The Aboriginal Intellect Abroad

The Making of the American Nietzsche
Nietzsche and the European Axis of American Cosmopolitanism
The Nietzsche Vogue
The Persona of Nietzsche
Launching “ Nietzschean” and “Nietzscheism” into American English
The Soul of Man under Modernity
Nietzsche and the Problems of Modern Thought
Unapologetic Catholic Apologetics
The Social Gospel and the Practicability of Christianity
Nietzsche’s Service to Christianity
Jesus of Nazareth, Nietzsche of Naumburg
The American Naturalization of the Übermensch
The Übermensch in the Popular Imagination
Self-Overcoming and Social Uplift
Modern Whirl and Romantic Self-Abandonment
The Übermensch and the German National Mind
The Übermensch at War and the “Made in Germany” Generation
To Each His Own Übermensch
Nietzsche as Educator
Experiencing Intellect; or, World-Making Words
Imitatio Nietzsche
The “Gay Science” of Cultural Criticism
The Modern Intellect and Prophetic Longing
Devotions: The Letters
Nietzsche Possession, Possessing Nietzsche
Nietzschean Self-Fashioning
Nietzsche Pilgrimage
Pathos of Distance from Democratic Culture
Dionysian Enlightenment
Walter Kaufmann, German Émigrés, and Nietzsche as Hitler’s Exile
Nietzsche as Problem Thinker
Nietzsche and the Nazis
Nietzschean Experimentalism and Jamesian Pragmatism
Counter-Dionysian Enlightenments
Kaufmann’s Nietzsche for All and None
Antifoundationalism on Native Grounds
Harold Bloom: The Quest for Emersonian Priority
Richard Rorty: Fusing the Horizons between Nietzsche and the Pragmatists
Stanley Cavell: Nietzsche, Emerson, and American Philosophy Finding Its Way Home
Thinking about American Thinking
Nietzsche Is Us


Transatlantic Crossings

The Aboriginal Intellect Abroad

Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul.

RALPH WALDO EMERSON, “Divinity School Address” (1838)

I profit from a philosopher only insofar as he can be an example.

FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE, “Schopenhauer as Educator” (1874), in Untimely Meditations

If book sales are a measure of literary achievement, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche in 1881 was a positive failure. His first work, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), caused quite a stir among a small circle of Wagnerians and philologists, but failed to catch the attention of the broader literary press and reading public. And yet this was his best-selling book during his lifetime; after that it was all downhill. The next year, “David Strauss, the Confessor and the Writer” (1873), the first of Nietzsche’sUntimely Meditations, received some initial attention but then quickly faded from view. The works that followed,Human, All Too Human (1878) and Daybreak(1881), went virtually unnoticed. Nietzsche never tired of contemplating the travails of the untimely genius. In a letter to a friend in August 1881, he bristled about anindifferent reading public, which let him starve on silence:

If I were unable to draw strength from myself, if I had to wait for applause, encouragement, consolation, where would I be? what would I be? There were certainly moments and whole periods in my life… when a robust word of encouragement, a hand-clasp of agreement would have been the refreshment of refreshments—and it was just then that everybody left me in the lurch.1

But a few months later, as the protracted neglect exacerbated Nietzsche’s frustration, three admirers from Baltimore, Maryland, Elise Fincke, her husband, and a friend, sent him an epistolary lifeline:

Esteemed Herr Doctor, Perhaps it is of little concern to you that here in America three people… often sit together and allow Nietzsche’s writings to edify them at their most intimate [auf’s Innigste erbauen]—but I don’t see why we shouldn’t at least tell you so once. We are counting on the fact that due to the depth of your thoughts and [your] sublime diction, we… will never be able or want to read anything else ever again.2

Nietzsche’s response to Fincke, both muted and arrogant, makes it difficult to appreciate how delighted he was to receive her praise. He informed her that he was now writing even more-challenging works, and that she and her companions should be duly forewarned: “Who knows? who knows? perhaps you too won’t be able to stand it and will come to say what some others have already said: He can run wherever he pleases and break his own neck when it pleases him too.”3

Such nonchalance, however, belied a deep sense of gratitude. His hand-written note to himself—written on the back of Fincke’s letter—tells a different story. Clearly pleased, he marked the occasion: “Erster amerikanischer Brief. initium gloriae mundi.”4 Finally, it seemed, the world was waking to his genius…


Antifoundationalism on Native Grounds

What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.

FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE, “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense” (1873)

You shall learn to grasp the sense of perspective in every value judgment—the displacement, distortion and merely apparent teleology of horizons and whatever else pertains to perspectivism … and the whole intellectual loss which every For, every Against costs us. You shall learn to grasp the necessary injustice in every For and Against, injustice as inseparable from life, life itself as conditioned by the sense of perspective and its injustice.

FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE, Human, All Too Human (1878)

There is no “being” behind doing, effecting, becoming; “the doer” is merely a fiction added to the deed—the deed is everything.

FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE, On the Genealogy of Morals (1887)

Jacques Derrida rarely found himself speechless, and certainly not on occasions for which he was commissioned to speak. But after accepting an invitation to the University of Virginia in 1976 to give a series of lectures on the US Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in honor of the Bicentennial of the American founding, Derrida surprised his audience with an apology: “I beg your pardon, but it will be impossible for me to speak to you this afternoon … about what I was engaged to deal with.” He admitted that he found the prospect of subjecting the Declaration of Independence to a “‘textual’ analysis” “intimidating.” But before he abandoned his commissioned experiment, he briefly gave it a try, and in terms that would be increasingly familiar to the ever-increasing American audience for his deconstructive criticism. He questioned the source of authority and the representational function of the signatures on the declaration, arguing that independence—indeed the very subject of the “we” announcing its independence—did not exist prior to, but rather was instantiated in, the act of signing. Founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence do not report an autonomy or independence already present, but instead perform autonomy and independence in the very act of announcing them. Though Derrida asserted that the “signature invents the signer” and the speech act of “we” creates its own subjectivity, he remained frustrated by the question of origins: “How is a State made or founded, how does a State make or found itself?” What, in other words, are the foundations of foundings?1

By figuratively tapping his tuning fork on the founding document of the American nation, Derrida gestured the ways in which deconstruction could be an experiment not only with rhetorical and literary value but also with political implications: “Do I dare, here, in Charlottesville, recall the incipit of your Declaration?” He then abruptly abandoned the experiment. “Nothing,” he confessed, “had prepared me for it.” In fact, he did have preparation, though not for such an interpretive task so much as against it. After all, for decades Derrida had been steeped in an author whom he understood to have warned against the hunt for origins, and mistaking findings for foundings. So instead of keeping his promise, he informed his audience that he would “mak[e] it easier on myself, falling back on subjects which are closer … to me.”2 Indeed, he fell back on the very author who counseled against the very commemorative exercise he had agreed to undertake. Derrida did not lecture on the Declaration of Independence. He lectured instead on Friedrich Nietzsche.

Did Derrida’s American hosts think his lectures on Nietzsche were a colossal bait-and-switch tactic? Did they think he was being impertinent to suggest that they listen to his lecture “with one or the other sort of ear ([as] everything comes down to the ear you are able to hear me with)” ?3 No, for he gave them what they wanted, or at least, certainly what they had come to expect. In Charlottesville he delivered deconstruction at work. For Derrida, following Nietzsche, the hunt for origins had come to an end, because origins are simply that which we ourselves create, and then impute meaning after the fact. We found foundings, we do not find them. Likewise, when we read Nietzsche, as Derrida would do in his analysis of Ecce Homo, we can no longer expect to locate the author, or his intended meanings, in the text. When we do, we enlist a rough-and-ready proper name, “Nietzsche,” to do the work for us. By drawing from Nietzsche’s ideas about language, extending the implications of his “death of God” to the “death of the author,” and showing the utter instability in the simplest acts of reading, Derrida offered a new textualist Nietzsche, who left “traces” of dissimulation in his wake.4 The readings of Nietzsche’s texts, like the readings of the Declaration of Independence, Derrida argued, are never static. But as “there is nothing outside of the text,” as he put it in Of Grammatology (1967), there is no escaping the endless movement, vitality, and terror of meaning-making when all the world’s a text, and yet its Author is dead.5

Derrida may have broken his promise to his Charlottesville hosts to lecture on the Declaration of Independence, but in his reasons for doing so he in fact participated in what, by 1976, was a long-standing practice in American intellectual life: he thought about America by thinking with Nietzsche. Indeed, he thought about American independence from Europe by using a European thinker to do so. And yet the methods by which he did this seemed radically new and unfamiliar. And that was what made them so ineluctably fascinating—they comprised a wholly novel way of thinking about truth and meaning, and with it a new way of thinking about America. American observers were increasingly coming to know this new style of thought aspostmodernism, a general term to encapsulate new interpretive modes from France, specifically deconstruction and poststructuralism.6 The drama of its ideas, the celebrity of its spokespeople, gave allure to the notion that French postmodernism brought Nietzschean antifoundationalism to the United States, and with it a host of intellectual and moral problems the country did not have before. What got lost in much of the thrill and horror of the “new French” Nietzsche was that the language and methodologies were new, but the reckoning with antifoundationalism was not. Although Nietzschean-inspired French philosophy and literary criticism played a significant role in cultivating new academic and popular audiences for the German philosopher, they comprised an important, but not the only, source of American engagements with Nietzschean antifoundationalism. Indeed, even the engagements with French theory—by using it to think about American thinking in relation to Continental thought—demonstrate the ways in which Americans had long come to terms with antifoundationalism on their native grounds.

About the author:

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen-11Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen is the Merle Curti Associate Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the author of American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas, published by the University of Chicago Press. Ratner-Rosenhagen’s research and teaching interests include the history of philosophy, political and social theory, religion, literature, and the visual arts; the transatlantic flow of intellectual and cultural movements; print culture; and cultural studies. Her publications are of both academic and general interest. All explore the links between intellectual life, the trafficking of ideas, and American culture.

Along with her academic scholarship and teaching, Ratner-Rosenhagen is also the founder of the Intellectual History Group at UW-Madison, an informal, interdisciplinary working group for faculty and graduate students interested in the varieties of intellectual history and history of ideas.