U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Plastic Nietzsche, Part I: A Review of Ratner-Rosenhagen’s American Nietzsche

Review of Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012). ISBN: 978-0-226-70581-1. 452 pages.

Reviewed by Tim Lacy
Loyola University Chicago

As is probably the case with many Midwesterners who grew up in small towns and rural areas of the American Heartland, my first encounters with the acolytes and intellectual followers of Friedrich Nietzsche came in college. As an undergraduate at the University of Missouri, I was introduced to several iterations of what Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen calls the American Nietzsche. Because I had never heard of Nietzsche, let alone read any of his work, these introductions were mostly superficial. My memory is imperfect, but I think I have encountered at least three Nietzsches during the (overly) long receiving end of my educational career.

It was Christianity, strangely enough, that introduced me to Nietzsche. My involvement with the Mizzou chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ brought me into contact with an ethereal, evil Nietzsche—a specter that haunts the dreams of those active campus evangelizers. To them Nietzsche was a formidable, seductive, and roguish character who was also, not surprisingly, the sworn enemy of Christianity. This was Nietzsche as the irreligious (nay evil) philosopher archetype who denounced religion as superstition. This figure was symbolic of the cultural and moral drift—the decay—of Western life. He was a clever, sinister foreigner indirectly degraded America’s Christian civilization. It was symbolically fitting, to Crusaders, that this sexually profligate man was downed by syphilis, the disease that, in the judgment of some heartless Crusaders, purposely rid the earth of unscrupulous characters like Al Capone. This sad end enabled Crusaders to build a comical caricature, a straw man, of Nietzsche that was easy for budding Christian evangelists to knock down. I am pretty sure that this portrait was painted, in part, by the writings of C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and other lesser Fundamentalist-type writers of the early twentieth century. It was  probably around this time that I first heard of the work of Allan Bloom and his relentless criticism of Nietzsche-inspired, late-twentieth-century moral relativity.

The second incarnation of Nietzsche I enountered, also at Mizzou, was similar to the Crusade Nietzsche but more personal and confrontational. This occurred shortly after graduation when I obtained a job interviewing victims of the 1993 Missouri River floods. I was part of a team consisting of older undergraduates, new twenty-something graduates like myself, and graduate students who fanned out across central Missouri, invading small river towns, to ascertain how flood victims dealt with the tragedy, then and after. A member of my interview group was a graduate philosophy student who openly embraced (is there any other way?) a Nietzschean perspective on life. In his interpretation that meant being a rebel philosopher—a provocateur who both challenged foundations and brusquely criticized one’s lack of ballast in thinking. The young man had neatly trimmed facial hair, so he did not fit the familiar aesthetic of a wildly bearded, hirsute, intense Nietzsche—an iteration documented Ratner-Rosehagen in American Nietzsche. Still, the young man’s constant challenges made him something of a rogue—and a pain in my ass. I might have grown to admire his relentless intelligence if he had not blocked my advances on an attractive young colleague. When I learned he slept with her, it just reinforced my Crusade-informed vision of the profligate rogue Nietzsche.

After my Crusade and Rogue Nietzsches, the last academic-related impression of him occurred during graduate school. This Nietzsche is probably most familiar to USIH readers so I will keep my recollections brief, and more personal. Like many historians-in-training, I became familiar with this Academic Nietzsche courtesy of courses where professors relayed the thought of deconstructionists and feminist theorists. Once again, I found myself uncomfortable. The Academic Nietzsche was unnerving, annoying, and, to my taste, wrong-headed. I saw Nietzsche as did Allan Bloom—as the inspiration for much that was wrong with the academy. That said, I had to know this Nietzsche. This iteration was neither comical nor merely provocative; utilizing caricatures would not do. I knew that some study of him and his intellectual descendants would be absolutely necessary. Even so, I managed to limit my direct contact with Nietzsche himself. Upon attainment of the PhD, I had managed to read only brief snippets of his works and had only a kind of advanced E.D. Hirschian sense of Nietzsche’s biography.

There is something familiar and unfamiliar, silly and serious, in each of these iterations. As such they introduce a dominant theme of American Nietzsche: the plasticity of the man and his thought in relation to American intellectual life. Each of my encounters, or at least a variation of each, is covered in Ratner-Rosenhagen’s powerful study. But American Nietzsche offers a much more. The thesis of her study is that Nietzsche’s philosophical thinking is connected to the United States in two ways. First, his philosophy is inextricably rooted in the work of a single American thinker: Ralph Waldo Emerson. The book details this debt, particularly in its Prologue and Introduction (pp. 1-27). Inasmuch as Emerson is a characteristic and canonical American thinker, American Nietzsche argues, successfully I believe, that Nietzsche shares that stage. This was a revelation to me, and it will bother those with only a superficial knowledge of Nietzsche. This half of the book’s thesis undercuts the exoticism and foreignness that both attracted and repelled segments of America.

This brings us to the second mode of Nietzsche’s connections to America. These links begin with the ongoing, two-way traffic between Germany and America—enabled and mediated by his sister, Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche—that occurred after the author’s death. This connection waxed and waned all through the twentieth century, but consisted of the reception of Nietzsche’s works and person in the United States. This portion of Ratner-Rosenhagen’s thesis is multifaceted, dealing with popular culture, religious figures (i.e. appropriations and rejections), cultural criticism, intellectual life, and, in the end, the Culture Wars. These topics come together, as purposed by Ratner-Rosenhagen and otherwise, to argue for the importance of Nietzsche’s thought in relation to democracy and democratic culture in the United States (pp. 23-24, 26). Our reception of Nietzsche, over various time periods, measures our receptiveness to the contradictions, problems, and possibilities of democracy.

Ratner-Rosenhagen’s thesis and coverage of the relationship between Nietzsche and the United States makes American Nietzsche, I believe, an indispensable companion for intellectual historians who need to think through their works’ relationships to Nietzsche’s life and writings. It is not exhaustive or perfect, as I will relay, but it is an exemplary work of reception history and transnational history.

This concludes the first part of my review of American Nietzsche. This serialization will continue in the next weeks, wherein I will underscore parts of the book’s contents, and offer my impressions, praise, and criticisms (quibbles, really). – TL

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great beginning Tim-I look forward to the rest.
    I remember my first exposure to the Nietzsche legacy as the muse to Hitler’s vision of the teutonic superman. This image stayed with me till my first real reading of Nietzsche in a Study of History class in college. In that class we read “The Use and Abuse of History” and I distinctly remember reading this essay with the image of Nietzsche as the inspiration to Hitler in my mind and feeling as though I was being asked to travel in the chambers of evil.

  2. My first contact with Nietzsche was the Goth kids in High School. My second contact was my pastor’s Francis Schafer type criticism from the pulpit. But my third contact was through Christians who had embraced him, like Paul Tillich and Karl Jaspers. It was the third, which blew my mind. Christians finding spiritual worth in Nietzsche had shaken the foundations of my thought.

    Luther Perez

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