Philosophy Weekend: Nietzsche in America

“On Sunday, April 27, 1913, in her Yonkers, New York, home, sixty-seven-year-old Jennie Hintz tried a new way of practicing her piety. She did not need the assistance of clergy, nor did she need to go to church, as she had given up her faith almost a half century earlier. The kind of devotion she experimented with had nothing to do with institutional Christianity, or Jesus, or the sacraments of her youth. It simply required her to put pen to paper and express in unguarded prose what Friedrich Nietzsche meant to her.

Her writing took the form of a long handwritten letter to Nietzsche’s sister and literary executor, Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche, to give thanks and praise for her brother’s life and though. Hintz, a self-described “spinster”, introduced herself as a “great admirer of your brother’s philosophy and his morals.” She explained that she had been reading Nietzsche’s works for over a year and a half, starting with “Beyond Good and Evil”, the only Nietzsche volume in her local library at the time … She said she felt drawn to Nietzsche because “in many points I had already arrived at these truths before he expressed them, but I remained mute keeping them for myself.” She did so, she explained, because in dealing with people more educated than she, Hintz found she was not listened to or taken seriously. But reading Nietzsche let her know that there was someone she could relate to.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, that strange, alluring bird. His prose could soar, but what happened when this bird landed on the earth? I knew as soon as I heard about the new American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, that this book would be valuable, and I could barely wait to read it. I’m a gigantic fan of Friedrich Nietzsche, but his outrageously original books (some of the best include The Birth of Tragedy, Beyond Good & Evil, On the Genealogy of Morals, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Ecce Homo) often leave readers in a state of vertigo. His slashing rants against phony moralists and smug academics were clearly designed to reverberate, but exactly how did they reverberate? To understand a philosopher so conscious of conflict, we must understand the conflicts his own ideas created, because these conflicts are the very manifestation of the philosophy. The fact that this sickly German professor became a celebrity and an icon seems as unlikely as his works themselves, and just as laden with meaning.

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen establishes her knowledge of and passion for her subject quickly in this book (for whatever it’s worth, a glance at the Acknowledgements section reveals that her young son’s middle name is Friedrich). She opens with a discussion of Nietzsche’s strong admiration for the American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, and then skips past the familiar details of the odd professor’s life story to arrive at his sad final years, when the great thinker languished madly under the care of his sister, barely able to comprehend the fact that, after a lifetime of being ignored, his books were finally being discovered by a new generation. He died in August 1900, just as readers around the world were beginning to understand the powerful mission that had gripped and possessed him his entire life.

During and immediately after the years of Nietzsche’s final decline, as if in the blink of an eye, he became a worldwide sensation. The initial shock of the Nietzsche phenomenon centered around his attacks on religion, his phrases “beyond good and evil”, “ubermensch” (“superman”), and “God is dead”, and his sickly persona itself. William James could barely see past the sensational persona and the rumors of his awful health and personal habits, and perhaps never realized how much common ground could be found between his own ideas and those of the Saxon madman (a later section in the book explores Nietzsche’s points of contact with the philosophy of Pragmatism, with regard to both James and the later Richard Rorty). Many of the earliest American readers, fascinated by the Nietzsche cult, could also not see past what Susan Sontag would later call “illness as metaphor”, and assumed that the philosopher’s severe mental illness was the natural culmination of his philosophy. This did not impair their fascination with him or his philosophy at all.

The book’s second chapter deals with the way various hearty American Christian movements welcomed the opportunity to debate Nietzsche on open grounds (indeed, it’s thrilling to realize that, a century ago, America’s Christian leaders were eager for open debate, and confident enough in their positions to see Nietzsche’s alleged atheism as an opportunity to buttress their own positions clearly and intelligently; American religious fundamentalism does not have to be anti-intellectual, and once was not). Different churches freely appropriated the parts of his message that they liked best: to Catholics, the apostasy of this son of a Protestant pastor stood as proof of the final depravity of Luther’s break from the real church, while to Protestants and Social Gospelers, Nietzsche’s protests against the inanity and conventionality of organized religion were a reminder that a faithful soul must never rest on comfortable customs from the past, but must instead strive to constantly reinvent the sources of faith.

It emerges from American Nietzsche that the post-Darwinian intellectual world was completely ready and primed for somebody to write a book called On The Genealogy of Morals, either because they liked the message or because they hated the message and needed a clear opportunity to refute it. This is why Nietzsche became a sensation (though one wonders why this couldn’t have taken place when he was still young and healthy enough to appreciate and enjoy his fame; what if Nietzsche had lived long enough to argue back?!).

The thematic chapters in American Nietzsche incorporate brief or lengthy vignettes about the many American thinkers who were deeply inspired by Nietzsche, including H. L. Mencken, Jack London, Emma Goldman, Eugene O’Neill, Clarence Darrow, Upton Sinclair and, later, Harold Bloom and Huey Newton (though another influential Nietzsche fan, Ayn Rand, is strangely not mentioned in this book). One of the book’s later chapters highlights the heroic work of German-Jewish American emigre Walter Kaufmann in rescuing Nietzsche’s reputation from the Nazi-connected inflections provided by the philosopher’s sister and literary executor, as well as from the negative appraisals of Theodor Adorno and Crane Brinton after World War II.

On April 8, 1966, the cover of Time Magazine famously asked “Is God Dead?”. By this time, Nietzsche may have seemed as American as cherry pie to many philosophical observers. But the larger point this excellent book delivers is not really about America at all, and in fact I suspect the focus of the book was restricted to a single continent mainly to provide a manageable volume to read. We also need books called European Nietzsche, Asian Nietzsche, African Nietzsche. If Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen chooses to oblige, I’ll read them all.

25 Responses

  1. The excerpt you included made
    The excerpt you included made me think of Ayn Rand — that the self described spinster somehow was kindred spirit with her. So I find it interesting to hear that indeed Ayn Rand was a fan. Interesting that she is not mentioned in the book — I guess it doesn’t fit the message the author wants to send.

    As far as that, is this book meant to be history? Biography? What department is she in?

    I enjoyed the review but don’t know why you feel compelled to contaminate it with little insulting asides such as

    “American religious fundamentalism does not have to be anti-intellectual, and once was not”

    Why do people feel compelled so often to gratuitously insult others cavalierly? Especially when the insult is of dubious merit and based on media driven stereotypes.

    It detracts from what you are trying to say and makes you seem petty and political. (I know you are not).

    The God is Dead guy died recently as well. William Hamilton died at 87 this week. A forgotten 15 minuter. I find it hard to believe adult people waste their time and energy mind spirit and intellect on such empty nonsensical pursuits. And it shows the utter silliness of our media driven modern society that such nonsense can make the cover of what purports to be the pinnacle of journalism and thought in our society. And it is worse now than it was in the 60s.

    Of course there were the predictable jokes of God may or may not be dead, but William Hamilton sure nuff is.

    Nietzsche does seem to be alive, though.

    My impression is of Nietzsche being associated with Nazism and fascism or other political philosophies that are domineering or misanthropic. But I don’t know much about it. Is my impression a proper one or based on distortions and stereotypes?

  2. A good review of a book I
    A good review of a book I sought out after seeing John Logan’s play about painter Rothko (RED). “The American way of laughing does me good” said Nietzsche. Thanks LA. –AL

  3. Thanks for the critical
    Thanks for the critical feedback, TKG, and for the news about William Hamilton. Good stuff.

    There is a very persistent belief that Nietzsche was a proto-Fascist, and it is a fact that Mussolini and Hitler both admired Nietzsche and cited his work in support of their movements. Nietzsche’s sister Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche was an anti-semite, and as the executor of his literary estate, she was in a position to allow his works to be used to support Nazi ideology. However, Nietzsche himself was the opposite of a fascist. He despised mob mentalities, and never uttered a racist or hateful statement against any ethnic group. In fact, he broke off his friendship with the composer Richard Wagner and with his sister’s husband because he could not tolerate their anti-semitism. Still, the image of Nietzsche as proto-fascist remains. It’s been part of the life’s work of Walter Kaufmann (mentioned above, and in the book) to help correct this misperception.

    Regarding my comment about anti-intellectualism among today’s Christian fundamentalists — well, I have two words to say: Rick Santorum. He was in the news during the past two weeks as I read this book, telling Americans that college education is for snobs, and that it insults a woman’s dignity to have free access to contraceptives. So, you can blame my bad tempered remarks on that fool. But, you may be right that I went too far with my comment, and I will take your advice and be more circumspect in the future.

  4. I think you are
    I think you are mischaracterizing Santorum’s remarks and views.

    And regardless of his views being mischaracterized or not, he is definitely willing to debate them intellectually, which was what your point was — that today’s “fundamentalists” won’t debate.

    As an aside about Santorum’s candidacy, I think it is exactly his willingness to debate his views that weakens him as a political candidate.

    Nietzsche was definitely a major figure in western civilization in the 20th and now 21st century with regard to his writings and their broad influence. Unlike a lot of philosophy, his writings and ideas are clear and understandable and have had practical real life impact.

    How much of what he wrote was his own views vs describing what he saw happening?

  5. I get your point, TKG. I
    I get your point, TKG. I guess my remarks here about Christian fundamentalism are over the top and unnecessary. I could remove them, but instead I’ll let them stand alongside these comments.

    What I had in mind when I wrote that paragraph — and what I should have said — is that it was refreshing to read in this book of a conservative/Christian intelligentsia that eagerly lapped up the challenge presented by the popularity of Nietzsche in this country a hundred years ago. I have a hard time imagining Rick Santorum or Sarah Palin or Rush Limbaugh rising to that kind of intellectual challenge, and I don’t know if there are any well-known Christian fundamentalist intellectuals who could handle such a task today. However, I may be idealizing the past based on a single chapter in a book. I probably am.

    About your wider question: well, Nietzsche’s career began with “The Birth of Tragedy”, a study of ancient Greek drama as a formative cultural force. I think he was fascinated with the history of mankind, with political, cultural and artistic trends, and with the great questions of ethics and morality. As to what he saw happening, well, the Franco-Prussian War and the unification of Germany under Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm took place when he was 26 years old. God only knows how this may have affected his life’s work. It’s a telling fact that he chose to live in Switzerland during these years.

  6. I understand what Levi was
    I understand what Levi was trying to say about Conservative Christians. From my personal experience, they ARE ignorant of the fact that most of our founding fathers were Deists, not Christians. Thomas Jefferson said, “There is not one redeeming feature in our superstition of Christianity. It has made one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites.”

    Even as I type this, I will say that I do have a belief, or faith, perhaps encoded into my brain cells either by childhood environment or directly from God, I don’t know which, in the Jesus of New Testament Christianity, which comforts me in difficult times or when I think of death. I should quickly add that my belief has almost nothing in common with the conservative, hypocritical politicians who want to legislative slave-like obedience to their onerous personal beliefs about sex, whether it be birth control or homosexuality. They fail to realize that in a free country, not everyone HAS to BE a Christian.

  7. Bill, this is a sidetrack of
    Bill, this is a sidetrack of the actual topic of the post and not worth really wasting time over.

    “They fail to realize that in a free country, not everyone HAS to BE a Christian.”

    I’d be curious who holds a position that everyone has to be a Christian? (See how ludicrous repeating empty rhetoric is?).

  8. TKG: “…he is definitely
    TKG: “…he is definitely willing to debate them intellectually…”

    From what I’ve seen of Santorum’s speeches I’d question the use of your word “intellectually.”

    He largely seems to favor the position of a preacher who finally has the chance to use the public pulpit to express his views which are far from any rational points of view. I fail to see him as an intellectual but rather an ideologue who keeps his distance from the world of reality which the vast majority face daily. Ideology over Reality seems to be the path of most candidates running in the GOP race which very well may be their downfall.

  9. Well, TKG, you brought it up
    Well, TKG, you brought it up first, when you commented on Levi’s review, saying, “I enjoyed the review but don’t know why you feel compelled to contaminate it with little insulting asides such as ‘American religious fundamentalism does not have to be anti-intellectual, and once was not’.

    And no, I don’t see my statement as ludicrous. Maybe I should have said “religious fundamentalists” instead of “Christian conservatives.” Or, I could have said that there are people who try to legislate morality. But my personal experience has been in debates with Christian conservatives who cite the Bible as their reason for voting on certain issues, which is their freedom of choice, of course, but these people want to outlaw tattoos because the Bible says not to mark your flesh, they want to outlaw homosexuality because the Bible says it’s an “abomination,” and so on. I have one coworker who says he “hates” the “COEXIST” bumper sticker because “God told us to separate oursleves from (the other beliefs represented on the sticker).” I tell them that not every United States citizen believes in the Bible. Then they counter with something like, “So, if I don’t believe the Bible, does that give me the right to murder people? Don’t you believe in the Ten Commandments?”

    So I have to explain that most civilizations, Christian or otherwise, have arrived at some prohibitions against things like murder and stealing. Then they tell me that God said in the Bible that he will destroy our nation, or will allow our nation to be destroyed, unless we turn back to Him. And by turning back to Him, they mean becoming Christians. And the religious right-wing presidential candidates play into this fear of God allowing our nation to be destroyed by an enemy that believes different from us, unless we get back in line with (their interpretation) of Christianity.

  10. very interesting…i’ve never
    very interesting…i’ve never read anything from the man but your article is intriguing, might have to pick up this book from amazon…please excuse my ignorance but was Nietzsche an atheist?

  11. Catalyst, I bet you’ll get a
    Catalyst, I bet you’ll get a lot of different answers to the question “was Nietzsche an atheist?” if you ask a lot of different Nietzsche readers. Some might say the answer is a loud “yes”, since he railed constantly against religion.

    But I’d rather say “I don’t know.” I think of Nietzsche as a philosopher of life on earth, a student of human nature, a proto-psychologist. We know that he had scorn for common religion, but I don’t know if he was an atheist or not. How can you say “God is dead” if you never believed in God? His father was a pastor. I’d love to know if he ever answered this question — I don’t know if he did or not.

  12. Bill,
    People have the right


    People have the right to their opinions.

    My question was to name anyone who ever stated everyone in the US must be Christian?

    An opinion that everyone should be is very different. Most everyone with an opinion thinks that it would be best if people agreed with them.

    eg “but these people want to outlaw tattoos…”

    I don’t believe this.

  13. — “Nietzsche himself was
    — “Nietzsche himself was the opposite of a fascist. He despised mob mentalities, and never uttered a racist or hateful statement against any ethnic group.”

    this is an important point. to me, nietzsche is one of the most misunderstood and hijacked philosopher-thinkers of the last two centuries. his “master and slave morality” was about getting beyond “groupthink” and “thou shalt.”

    and how anyone can seriously protest too loudly against “anti- intellectual” as a description of today’s completely over-the-top right-wing fundamentalist candidates? it is in fact an accurate description, and need not be apologized for.

  14. “it is in fact an accurate
    “it is in fact an accurate description, and need not be apologized for.”

    It’s actually a facile smear.

    There are plenty who make well rounded logical arguments and are well read and understanding. They aren’t well known and given the environment, the others get the hype — they are so fun to feel superior to.

    Both sides partake in the facile smearing.

    There are people on both sides who are respectful and sincere.

  15. i see what you mean now.
    i see what you mean now. yes, i suppose levi’s characterization was perhaps a bit too sweeping. maybe.

    —“Both sides partake in the facile smearing.

    There are people on both sides who are respectful and sincere.”

    okay, fair enough. but not the current / recent crop of fundamentalist political candidates on the right. about as far from (respectful) intellectual pursuit as you can get.

  16. He was an atheist. It
    He was an atheist. It underlines not only his attacks on conventional religion but his general disregard for metaphysics as well. In Nietzsche’s philosophy, there is no external source for values except in what individuals will for themselves. When he spoke of the death of God more in a social sense, that God has no meaning in society. Fritz was certainly fine with that though. He certainly did believe in God once, since he studied theology at first before switching to Philology and he did admire individuals such as Jesus and Muhammad for their visionary character.

  17. TKG,
    After searching the


    After searching the internet for something to back up my claim about tattoos, I must concede that you are right. Although I’ve spoken to people who think tattoos should be illegal for religious reasons, I was unable to find any cohesive movement by Christians to outlaw tattos. Good call.

    I know people have a right to their opinions. I also know that not every Christian wants to force everyone else to be a Christian, like they did during the Crusades. Your replies are showing me the shortcomings of my previous statements, which I appreciate.

    What I was trying to say is this:

    Let’s say a conservative, King-James-Bible-literalist-Christian wants to pass a law. I ask them why. They quote the Bible as their authority. But I don’t take that Bible passage literally. Just because they believe it, doesn’t mean I have to believe it. So in a figurative way, it’s like they want to make me behave like one of them.

    On the rare occasion that I go to church, it’s either Universalist Unitarian or Episcopal. We don’t care if you’re a Christian or not.

  18. Levi – I read “Thus Spake
    Levi – I read “Thus Spake Zarathustra”, and I have to admit that I was baffled by it. Is there another work that would provide a better introduction to Nietzsche’s work? I know that Jim Morrison was influenced by “The Birth of Tragedy”….

  19. Hi Michael — well, Nietzsche
    Hi Michael — well, Nietzsche was fascinated by ancient mythic drama, and I suspect that with “Thus Spake Zarathusra” he was trying to write a modern mythic drama. That doesn’t make for the most accessible writing. Almost all of his other writings are easier to follow. I would start with “On the Genealogy of Morals”. There’s no difficulty at all figuring out what he’s saying in that one. It’s the first Nietzsche I ever read, back when I was in college, and it certainly left a lasting impression.

  20. TKG, the more I think about
    TKG, the more I think about it, you’re right.
    People should try to pass whatever laws they believe should be passed, and those who disagree can vote the other way. Whoever wins, wins. I don’t know why I was being so vehement about it.

  21. Hi Bill,
    It is in the air to

    Hi Bill,

    It is in the air to get all worked up like that.

    I agree with you that “because the Bible says” is not a good or winning argument in the political arena.

  22. Is it really a surprise that
    Is it really a surprise that Ayn Rand is not mentioned?

    I would have been shocked if she had. She, really, is not regarded much in philosophical circles, and with good reason.

    I was curious to read the article because I thought the book would have delved more into the question of why Nietzsche is not discussed more in American (academic) philosophy. To an outsider, this certainly seems because of the Nazi distortion. Which, really, if anyone actually bothers to read Nietzsche, is so easily dispelled, that evidence from his personal life would not be necessary. Wasn’t it a fashion once for all crazed killers to carry a copy of “Catcher in the Rye” when committing the act? Would one then say that Salinger had influenced these killers? A writer cannot choose his/her readership, nor his/her fan base.

    Finally, it would have been interesting to discuss Nietzsche’s influence on current philosophy of science, as for example, discussed by someone such as Ronald Giere. Nietzsche not only dispelled religious fanaticism, he also warned against new kinds of dogmatism taking over.

    Seems like the book may be directed at a more general audience than one versed in philosophy. Is that your impression?

    * When I say an absence of Nietzsche in American (academic) philosophy, I refer mainly to what would be within the purview of traditional philosophy departments (as opposed to what I have mentioned with philosophy of science); also, there is significant Nietzsche influence on American Letters. But the man was a philosopher, so it would be interesting to know the reaction of contemporary American philosophy.

  23. Sometimes, people who, for
    Sometimes, people who, for religious reasons, don’t want their insurance premiums to pay for birth control, will site economics as a secondary reason. They say, “Even if I have no opinion on premarital sex, why should I help pay for people to do it?” But, think how much more it would cost for the medical care of babies born due to lack of birth control pills. Practice abstinance, you say? We’ve been trying for thousands of years to force kids to do that. How’s that working out for us? People with plenty of money can buy birth control pills for themselves and their teen-aged children, so that leaves the poorest people to have kids that will need mecical care they can’t afford. Then the conservatives say, “Well, they shouldn’t do it! It’s wrong! So we’ve come back to religion thing again.

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