U.S. Intellectual History Blog

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

Prior Entries: Part 1, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V.

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Ratner-Rosenhagen’s unnumbered chapter, the “Interlude” is, in my view, pivotal to understanding American Nietzsche. Even as a standalone entry it deserves high praise. Although reviewers of American Nietzsche have noted the Interlude’s subject matter—Nietzsche’s common American readers—in their commentaries, the former mostly focus on the book’s recognizable intellectuals. None concentrate on the virtues of the Interlude itself. This is a shame. The chapter is most unusual, unique perhaps, in the historiography of intellectual history. How? It is rooted in—and made possible by—American fan letters from the Nietzsche Archive. The Interlude covers the 1910s and 1920s chronologically, and Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche is a key actor as both curator of Nietzsche’s memory and keeper of fan mail.

The chapter serves as a kind of emotional history of the philosopher’s ideas. The pitch of emotion is such that one could say that a sacramental vision of Nietzsche provides a grammar for the chapter. Through Förster-Nietzsche’s scrupulous records we obtain a vision of readers’ longings, of readers’ ideas about ideas, of the range of readers’ moral worlds, of Nietzsche as a celebrity, and of reader concerns about American modernity. Through the efforts of his fans, Nietzsche was, in Ratner-Rosenhagen’s words, “a product of collaborative meaning-making between text and reader, text and context” (p. 199). His fans created the mythical Nietzsche. They sought relics of the man, particularly via his signature. His ideas and his person “possessed” the reader. The sacramental vision is apparent when Ratner-Rosenhagen argues that “virtually all letter writers confessed how their encounter with Nietzsche’s philosophy either emboldened or chastened them, liberated them from old falsehoods,or saddled them with new moral responsibilities” (p. 203). The book also documents “religious devotion” to Nietzsche through their pilgrimages to the Nietzsche Archive and visits with Förster-Nietzsche (p. 209).

But the Interlude is crucial to Ratner-Rosenhagen’s story, as I see it, in that it also unlocks and underscores a key topic in the book: democracy. In entries one and five of my ongoing review, I emphasized that American Nietzsche‘s importance derived, in large part, from how it helps us rethink democracy. The Interlude goes to this point. Its last section, titled “Pathos of Distance from Democratic Culture,” the author begins by addressing the borders of that culture. She asserts that the two-way flow of ideas between Germany and the United States, via Nietzsche, demonstrates “the value of breaking down static concepts such as ‘foreign thought,’ ‘organic ideas,’ ‘German theories,’ and ‘American worldviews’.” The fan letters help “tell a bigger story about how the transnational traffic of Nietzsche’s image and ideas helped puncture and rebuild, traverse and reconstitute intellectual borders” (p. 211).

Ratner-Rosenhagen then dives into a nuanced discussion of translation issues before returning to readers’ desires and their cultural context. She argues that readers obtained from Nietzsche a “German pathos of distance.” His philosophy helped readers “shield themselves from the crude, anti-intellectual mob mentality of American life” (p. 215). Ratner-Rosenhagen adds: “Just as we see variants of hero worship among professional intellectuals, so too do we see fears of American anti-intellectualism deeply burrowed into the imagination of general readers, who wrote to the archives” (p. 215). The author cites some particular letters as representative examples: two from Jennie Hintz (pp. 193-196), composed in 1913, and another from Theodore Van Derlyn (p. 215), composed in 1915. It is no coincidence that Ratner-Rosenhagen uses the Hintz and Van Derlyn letters to open and close the chapter, respectively.

Ratner-Rosenhagen lets us hear their voices through extended quotes precisely because those voices reflect crucial points from the author. Hintz’s admiration for Nietzsche derived from a close reading of his works and H.L. Mencken, presumably The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Her letter documented not only her devotion to Nietzsche’s person and empathy for his past frailties, but her sense that Nietzsche had captured the alienation present in modern American life. Hintz had felt disconnected from modern life until Nietzsche’s provocations shook her from her slumbers. She wrote Förster-Nietzsche because Hintz wanted help obtaining and distributing Nietzsche’s works (in German, ironically—unless she only hoped to help fellow German immigrants). Through these works Americans would aspire to their highest selves.

Van Derlyn wrote Förster-Nietzsche to inform her that he was working on a manuscript about Nietzsche’s work. Van Derlyn sought to “critique the mediocrity of man in the masses,” to criticize “democratic” man in order to fight “the poverty of modern American cultural life” (p. 215). Like Matthew Arnold around fifty years earlier, who had critiqued the philistine men of business, Van Derlyn would use Nietzsche to work against America’s monied plutocracy. To Van Derlyn this new ersatz American aristocracy was, unfortunately, “the recognized standard of…American society”; they were “the ‘ultra-fashionable set’…[with] no sense, …no soul, no reason, no character, nothing, except a peacock-like egocentricity, and above all, money, lots of money” (p. 215). Between the democratic man and the faux aristocrats, American culture—its democratic culture—was diseased. And Nietzsche, for Hintz and Van Derlyn, was the cure. Nietzsche, in Ratner-Rosenhagen’s words, was “the timeless savior of modern humanity and a timely critic of a world out of kilter” (p. 215).

Other reviewers have noted the problem of democracy in relation to America’s Nietzsche. For reader-admirers like Hintz and Van Derlyn, Nietzsche was, as Roger Bellin aptly argued, “deployed simultaneously in the service of antiauthoritarianism and a new ‘democratic’ aristocracy.” As Thomas Meaney noted, however, this tactic was difficult for intellectuals. He wrote (italics mine): “For Rorty, for instance, the challenge Nietzsche posed for a democratic culture could be solved by simply signing on to everything he says about the self but quarantining the rest of his unpalatable anti-democratic pronouncements.”

Alexander Star summed up the general reader’s problem with a question: “How [would Nietzsche’s admirers] separate his intoxicating attacks on convention from his disgust with democracy and its herd of citizens?” Posnock too addresses this problematic point when he underscores relationship between Nietzsche and radical left criticism of the American way of life: “Radical leftists—anarchists, socialists and feminists—were early enthusiasts…who found in Nietzsche’s contempt for religion and democracy a way to rouse the masses from obedience to Christian ideals of submission and democratic fictions of a free market.” There’s no way, in sum, to discuss the American Nietzsche without confronting the problems and perils of the idea behind the American project: democracy. This is what Ratner-Rosenhagen asks of us in this chapter, and it is a signal contribution of her project exploring the reception of Nietzsche in the United States.

The Interlude also underscores the plasticity of Nietzsche followers. As the author repeatedly proved and observed, readers “made and remade Nietzsche in their own image” (p. 216). They made him a “personalist companion, secular saint, or cultural critic,” as their needs required. These readers were not, moreover, molded by Nietzsche, but rather were “active participants who collaborated with Nietzsche.” In this process of making and unmaking, American citizen readers “reconstitute[d] national, political, and cultural distinctions” between America and Germany. This is the essence of transnationalism in relation to larger Western figures and ideas.

That this process, and this chapter and its themes, were critically important to Ratner-Rosenhagen is evident in the Interlude’s final paragraph. Here she interjects her own voice in support of using these letters to extrapolate Nietzsche’s broader significance “in the making of modern American thought.” Here is her statement: “My belief is that [these letters speak] to the ways in which a variety of Americans both took part in and resisted the implications of transnational intellectual exchanges. …Nietzsche [made]…the designation of ‘average’ no longer meaningful to his readers as a term of self-description. …He showed them a pathos of distance from everyday values—whether of the church, the marketplace, or the civics lesson—that helped them sharpen their sense of distinction in themselves, enabling them to feel their own particularity.” In Nietzsche they found “a philosophy that harmonized thinking and doing”; he was their “guide to becoming” (p. 217). Plasticity had to be inherent in his thought to guide a diverse group of people—a group whose diversity is fully evident in other chapters, even if those other chapters focus more on America’s intellectual elite rather than the common reader.

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The seventh and final installment of this serial review will appear next week. – TL

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Tim, thanks for pointing out the significance of the interlude. I am slowly working my way through this book in my “spare time” [insert slight chuckle] and am now greatly looking forward to this chapter. My first semester of graduate school I wrote a readings-seminar paper on reception of Nietzsche in various countries and recall that the historiography (especially on America) was rather slim. I suspect you are right that this is one of the signal contributions of Ratner-Rosenhagen’s book.

  2. Brian,

    Thanks for the comment. I was wondering if I had lost everyone at this point, six entries being a bit much.

    Beyond that, I appreciate your confirmation of my sense—and it was only a sense given my ignorance of the sum total of historical scholarship on Nietzsche—that this is likely the signal contribution of the book. But, on a deeper level, I think the focus on democracy (i.e. concerns, problems, contradictions, paradoxes with the idea of) is real contribution of her reception study. I think it’s Jennifer’s concern, and it also happened to be the concern of her letter writers.

    And this intersection raises all kinds of fascinating, relevant questions: What kind of foundations are required to navigate democracy? Does democratic culture require competing foundations (e.g. multiculturalism, pluralism, religion, ethics) to function—does democracy require pluralism as a precondition? Is democracy unnecessary without it? Or does democracy require a common culture, or does common culture render democracy moot? When does a positive common culture devolve into a nefarious, conformist mass culture? What does Nietzsche’s push for an Uberman do for democracy? Does it function like Emerson’s encouragement to develop our possibilities to their fullest, and thereby enrich democracy via individual diversity? Or does it create libertarian selfishness?

    The Interlude and its letters underscore these deep concerns.

    – TL

  3. Your point about Emerson is a good one. Before starting this book, I was not aware of the extent of RWE’s influence on Nietzsche. One might also assess the impact of this book in a transnational sense–did America’s antebellum intellectuals had a greater international/transnational impact than we previously realized?

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