“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.