U.S. Intellectual History Blog

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

Prior Entries: Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.

After four installments wherein I evaluated the criticisms and praise of others in relation to American Nietzsche, I am now ready to hazard my own commentary, concerns, and questions.Today’s entry deals with questions and criticism more than praise, but the latter will appear in my last entry. [Note: Minor editing corrections were made to this post 9:00 am CST]

In the first installment of this series I asserted that the book is “an indispensable companion for intellectual historians who need to think through their works’ relationships to Nietzsche’s life and writings.” It was a sense I had immediately after my reading, and that feeling was confirmed, for the most part, by the other reviews. But this thesis is not a hard one to defend even without reference to the Nietzsche scholarship. How? Ratner-Rosenhagen’s book is the first intellectual history to systematically work through the reception of Nietzsche among all types of thinking Americans. It’s one of a kind.

Beyond that, however, I believe that future studies of Nietzsche will have to go through American Nietzsche for other reasons. I noted in my first entry that “our reception of Nietzsche, over various time periods, measures our receptiveness to the contradictions, problems, and possibilities of democracy.” That last part is the key. Ratner-Rosenhagen is concerned with Nietzsche in relation to how democratic culture is structured and maintained in a modern world that occasionally needs interventions by authorities. This involves thinking about religion, philosophy, ethics, secularism, technology, popular culture, cultural life, diversity, how people identify with society, and, ultimately, how people relate to each other.

Despite a review thesis that is not hard to defend, and perhaps overly laudatory, there are many questions one can ask in relation to the topics just enumerated. My first questions came up in relation to religion, in particular in relation to Catholicism and its status as a transnational entity.

For starters, what of Nietzsche by way of those Europeans whose writings were popular in America, people like G.K. Chesterton, who was highly critical of Nietzsche and Nietzscheans? Chesterton was the public enemy of George Bernard Shaw, a popularizer of the Ubermensch and directly referenced in American Nietzsche (pp. 112-113, 117). Along with Chesterton one might also look at the popularity of Hillaire Belloc or Etienne Gilson in relation to Nietzsche. As you can see, my point pertains particularly to Catholics, especially European Catholics who received attention in the United States from both conservative/traditionalist and liberal wings of the faith. The popular figures I mention above could have been addressed in chapter two, where Catholics are already covered (pp.80-87). In those passages Ratner-Rosenhagen focuses on Maude D. Petre (who used Nietzsche positivelyl), but also eventually includes Joseph B. Jacobi (anti-Nietzsche usage), and James Martin Gillis (anti-Nietzsche usage). This attention to Petre’s articulate, engaging, but dissenting minority views detract from the story of how other figures (“most American Catholics” Ratner-Rosenhagen confesses) controlled the dialogue in Catholic circles. Those figures were indeed troubled by Nietzsche’s antifoundationalist thinking. The attention to Petre also ignores the question of whether she was responding to an already established, typical Catholic interpretation of Nietzsche.

My sense is that coverage of figures like Chesterton, Belloc, and Gilson would enrich the story of “scary Nietzsche”, the bugaboo of traditionalist Christians. This is the Nietzsche who did not merely observe Western problems and decay, but was believed to be more than a messenger—indeed a source of decay and corruption. Covering this topic adds to both the transnational and American stories. It also raises interesting questions. What was the first Catholic reaction to Nietzsche? From whom did it arise, theologians, a particular order, or lay people? Why? When did it reach the U.S.? To what extent are Catholic thinkers still afraid of Nietzsche? Perhaps this topic was too big and complicated for American Nietzsche. If so, then I see need for another study.

A book that could have helped Ratner-Rosenhagen make deeper connections with the American Catholic intellectual scene is Jay P. Corrin’s Catholic Intellectuals and the Challenge of Democracy (2002, and here’s a review by S-USIH friend Kevin Schultz). Neither Maude Petre nor Nietzsche are prominent in the text (one mention each, I think), but Ratner-Rosenhagen could have used Corrin to triangulate, to enrich, her narrative of American Catholic views of Nietzsche. As for Chesterton and Nietzsche, numerous books and articles outline their “relationship” and provide opportunities to connect both to American Catholic audiences.

My next question about American Nietzsche moves away from religion and toward subject’s status in American popular culture—his place as an icon. The question also borders on nit-picking. Given the importance of embodied ideas and Nietzsche’s persona, well-established in the text (pp. 51-67), why is one of the more important “iconographic” images of Nietzsche, head supported by fist (right, from 1882, mentioned on p. 52), not in the book? Why the one 1882 photograph and not the other? Given the importance of how Nietzsche was imported to America, and perhaps oversold to Americans, the reader must be given all the images seen by Americans that the author feels is relevant. The omission was likely the result of a licensing problem, but that probably should have been mentioned in a note. The assertion of importance in the text requires some explanation.

Related to Nietzsche’s persona, how did the culture industry, discussed (on pp. 231-33) but not applied to Nietzsche, fit into the picture? Is Nietzsche yet another case of a capitalism subsuming the current culture of cool? What of Nietzsche as a marketing phenomenon? Perhaps Ratner-Rosenhagen felt this was beyond the scope of the book? An example of where this topic could have been useful is in relation to H.L. Mencken. Being the consummate newspaper man and self-promoter, perhaps he oversold his story of Nietzsche in relation to his own industrious cultural criticism. A plastic Nietzsche would be convenient to a creative critic looking to mold an exotic character to his own ends.

Thinking more about Nietzsche’s reception, what of his writing style? It would seem that a full accounting of readers’ response must include some assessment of his mode of writing. I wonder if a concentrated discussion of that topic is needed early in the book. Several provocative quotes from Nietzsche are utilized in each chapter, but is there no account of his prose style in the literature that has assessed Nietzsche’s legacy? Several of those cited by Ratner-Rosenhagen discuss his style, but she leaves control of that discussion to the historical actors. What is it about his writing mode that captivated audiences? Can we separate his writing style from his ideas?

On his ideas, here I have to rebuff at least one of the reviewers (e.g. Posnock). Ratner-Rosenhagen does briefly discuss Nietzsche’s beliefs and philosophy beyond the broad strokes of foundationalism and antifoundationalism. In the opening pages of chapter two (pp. 69-74), for instance, Nietzsche’s thoughts on God, morality, his own legacy are addressed by Ratner-Rosenhagen. And she uses specific texts. It’s all done briefly, but Nietzsche’s philosophy and more specific views are there. After the Introduction, Nietzsche is largely quoted only at the start of each chapter, and then the book leaves interpretation to the authors cited within each time period. This is proof positive that you, the reader, are getting the orthodox, unorthodox, and mixed receptions of Nietzsche. The reader will, at times, long for a fact-checking of Nietzsche and be frustrated. And I have little doubt that Ratner-Rosenhagen felt and resisted this urge, at times. Her successful resistance to the urge to judge Nietzsche’s readers is what makes the book. It is an, not the intellectual history of Nietzsche. This is her contribution to the literature. Do not read American Nietzsche in the hope of finding a systematic categorization of his truth claims, either with regard to Nietzsche himself or his interpreters. You will only find a “foundational Nietzsche” in the detail demanded by fellow philosophers.

Although I am fine defending Ratner-Rosenhagen’s brevity in relation to explaining Nietzsche’s ideas, I did desire to know more about Nietzsche’s literary corpus. First, a useful, brief addition to the text might have been a 1-2 page timeline of Nietzsche’s signal life events, original publication dates of his books, and, last but not least, the dates of significant English translations. Second, I believe that some very brief, focused, and non-interpretive summaries of the contents of select Nietzsche works could have helped. For instance, the Gay Science appears in the text on at least six different occasions. But the reader will know no more about the book, as a whole, at the end of American Nietzsche as he or she had at the start. So, despite my praise for Ratner-Rosenhagen’s resistance of the urge to fact check and re-present everything, and her focus on Nietzsche’s ideas, it would have felt more satisfactory, in spots, to have a few of those summaries. This suggestion, with the timeline, might have added 5-10 pages to the text. That is significant. But I believe it would give the reader just enough comfort with Nietzsche’s writings to triangulate some of the points of reception.


This concludes Part V of my serial review of American Nietzsche. Next week I will continue with my own criticisms, praise, and questions.