My Own Private Nietzsche: An American Story

My Own Private Nietzsche: An American Story

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen

The German philosopher whose ideas would leave an indelible mark on Europe was embraced by Americans eager to see in him a reflection of their own image.

Read Time:
22m 28sec

On Sunday, April 27, 1914, 67-year-old Jennie Hintz of Yonkers, New York, penned the first of two long letters to Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, Friedrich Nietzsche’s sister and literary executor. Hintz, a self-described “spinster,” introduced herself as a “great admirer of your brother’s philosophy and his morals.” There was so much to tell Förster-Nietzsche, so much to reflect on—with every stroke of her rusty German Schrift, Hintz etched her longings and disappointments into the stationery. She shared a bit of her background (she was born in Königsburg, moved to Boston at age 10, and now lived in Yonkers with her sister’s family), chronicled her break from Christianity as a teenager, and confessed her frustrations in trying to find her own “voice.” She explained that she felt drawn to Nietzsche precisely because “in many points I had already arrived at these truths before He expressed them, but I remained mute keeping them for myself.”

Learning about his catastrophic mental collapse in 1889, which extinguished his mind and left his body to languish until his death in 1900, “brought me to tears,” she wrote. Had she only known that this suffering saint existed, “that He had the courage to write his ideas out and to publish them, already in 1887 I could have come to him, stood by his side,” and proved to him that she was “another soul who understood him.” Rather than give in to frustration, though, she understood that she must turn to the resources in herself. After all, that is what Nietzsche had taught her: not the truth, but how one finds it in and for oneself.

Hintz was not alone in her fascination with Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). In the closing years of the 1890s, as Nietzsche entered the final phase of his mental twilight, his philosophy experienced a popular dawn in the United States. It was at this time that discussions of his thought began studding philosophical journals, literary magazines, political manifestoes, Sunday sermons, and public lectures. American readers took an interest not only in Nietzsche’s radical ideas, but also in the tortured life that gave birth to them. They examined why his pious upbringing as the son of a Lutheran pastor gave way to atheism, catalogued his battery of illnesses, questioned why he left his university professorship for a lonely life of intellectual itinerancy, assessed friendships collapsed and abandoned, and debated whether “madness,” “genius,” or “mad genius” was the appropriate explanation for his tragic biography. The interest in Nietzsche grew so dramatically that by 1910 observers could, without hyperbole, claim that it was one of the most significant “intellectual romances” of the period. Virtually unknown during his productive lifetime in his native Germany, now, across the Atlantic, in an America he had known little of, Friedrich Nietzsche had become a posthumous popular celebrity and public intellectual.

When Hintz professed her reverence for Nietzsche in 1913, the American “Nietzsche vogue” (as it was referred to at the time) was only in its infancy. Indeed, what looked like a fleeting intellectual fashion in the 1910s proved so durable that by 1987 it had accomplished, in the words of University of Chicago classics scholar Allan Bloom, nothing less than the “Nietzscheanization” of the American mind. In The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom surveyed the wreckage of late-20th-century “value relativism” in American culture and traced it back to the 1930s and ’40s, when German-speaking intellectual émigrés fleeing Nazism brought Nietzsche’s philosophy with them as they found refuge in the American academy. According to Bloom, though they introduced Americans to Nietzsche’s terrifying insights into the bankruptcy of Western thought and morality, these refugee scholars also instructed them in the larger European cultural framework from which they had come. But as his philosophy made its way from the academy into the radicalized culture of the 1960s, it became transfigured into a blank check for late-20th-century “nihilism, American style.”

“On enchanted American ground the tragic sense has little place,” Bloom asserted, insisting that restless leftists of the 1960s threw down just enough fertile soil to nourish Nietzsche’s assaults on universals but not enough to support the moral reckoning his ideas required. For Bloom, the fact that American ideologues at century’s end could so badly botch the ideas of a genius who took the likes of them as his enemy bespoke the unbridgeable chasm between Nietzsche’s robust aristocratic radicalism and the slack, impoverished American culture that worshipped it. Bloom not only dedicated a good portion of his best-selling book to his thundering lament, but editors of this very magazine of ideas—The Wilson Quarterly—gave him an additional 14 pages to examine the spectacle of “How Nietzsche Conquered America” [Summer ’87].

In the most general sense, Bloom got this story right—Nietzsche had conquered America, though not by the route he imagined. As Hintz’s letter indicates, Nietzsche’s philosophy had insinuated itself into the American moral imagination long before Bloom assumed it had, and had pulled into its orbit a much wider and more diverse readership than he recognized. Indeed, throughout the 20th century, the American fascination with the German philosopher worked its way along the political spectrum, and through cultural hierarchies that ostensibly divided “high” scholarly thought from “middlebrow” and “popular” culture. Just a tiny sampling of Nietzsche’s American readers points to a larger and more complicated history here: William James, William Jennings Bryan, Ruth Benedict, Thomas Mann, Hans Morgenthau, Mark Rothko, Jack Kerouac, Lionel Trilling, Huey P. Newton, Judith Butler, and Cornel West, not to mention countless Jennie Hintzes lost to history.

In virtually every reading, a new Nietzsche emerged. While birth control advocate Margaret Sanger celebrated the “Überfrau” she hoped her emancipated New Woman would become, free-market lioness Ayn Rand discovered in the German philosopher a fellow hater of enfeebling altruism, “who believed that a man should have a great purpose . . . for his own sake . . . and his own selfish motives.” Just as “death of God” theologians used Nietzsche’s philosophy to reformulate religious meaning after the horrors of World War II, speechwriters for George W. Bush drew from it an indispensable formulation—the “will to power”—to explain the evils of Al Qaeda in the president’s September 2001 speech to Congress launching the “war on terror.”

Though American commentators’ interpretations and uses of Nietzsche have ranged considerably, they reveal similar pathways through which he became so ubiquitous in 20th-century American life. What holds together Nietzsche’s array of readers is the same sentiment Jennie Hintz expressed—that he spoke to them personally. They discovered in Nietzsche a philosopher who wrote to and of the distinctive, rare, exemplary self, and they took it as axiomatic that they were the self Nietzsche had in mind. If Nietzsche became a modern celebrity, secular savior, bogeyman, and towering public philosopher in American popular discourse, he traveled this crucial path by way of private longings.

Friedrich Nietzsche thought that if a culture was clutching calcified truths, one needed to sound them out relentlessly. And that’s exactly what he tried to do. From his earliest essays on aesthetics, history, and genius in The Birth of Tragedy (1872) and Untimely Meditations (1873–76), to his experiments in philosophical aphorism in Human, All Too Human (1878) and The Gay Science (1882), to his later works assaulting Christian morality, On the Genealogy of Morals (1887) and The Antichrist (1895), this “philosopher with a hammer” (as he came to identify himself) spent his career tapping that hammer against Western ideals turned hollow idols. Central to his philosophical project was challenging the notion of eternal truth. Nietzsche sought to demonstrate that nothing is inherently good or evil, but rather that all values are culturally and historically contingent. Likewise, he argued that all claims to truth are nothing more than “human, all-too-human” desires for a particular version of the good life, not mirrors of a supra-historical reality.

While Nietzsche sought to dismantle the notion of universal morality, so too did he try to upend his readers’ faith in God. He shocked them with the declaration that “God is dead,” and disturbed them with his insistence that God had not created man in his image; it was man who had created an image of God in order to give his life meaning, purpose, and a moral center. According to Nietzsche, the entire basis of modern Western culture was a slippery slope of lies: transcendent truth, the Enlightenment faith in reason and scientific objectivity, absolute morality, a Supreme Maker. These were mere fictions, products of human imagination and the struggle for power.

From time to time, Nietzsche put down his hammer as he tried to imagine a world after moral absolutes. Even he wondered what would happen once every article of faith had been shed and every claim to universal truth exposed as a human construct. It would require a special kind of individual to thrive or even survive in such a world—a figure he called the “Übermensch” (“superman,” or, literally, “over human being”). In Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883–85), his most poetic, prophetic text, and the one that enjoyed the broadest readership in the United States, Nietzsche proclaims, “God is dead. . . . I teach you the Übermensch. Man is something that shall be overcome. . . . All beings so far have created something beyond themselves. . . . What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the Übermensch: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. . . . The Übermensch is the meaning of the earth. . . . I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes!” The Nietzsche of Zarathustra conducted philosophy not with a hammer but with a divining rod, and in doing so sought to prophesy rare instances of human grandeur in a world after the death of God.

Beginning with the earliest English translations of Nietzsche’s texts in 1896, the first generation of his American readers struggled mightily to make sense of this philosopher who worked with a hammer in one hand and a divining rod in the other. Christian clergy, philosophers, cultural critics, political reformers, and literary radicals were the first to jump into the speculative fray, trying to figure out how—or if—to put the ideas of an antidemocratic, anti-Christian iconoclast to work in their lives. Though none could offer a clear version of the ideal self or society Nietzsche had in mind, they nevertheless agreed that his philosophy demanded that they reckon with the moral and material health of their modernizing America. Invariably, they sized up his philosophy in the familiar terms of their own early-20th-century moral concerns and political commitments.

The satirist and sharpshooting critic H. L. Mencken did the most to welcome Nietzsche as an unyielding, godless, dionysian aristocrat into the American imagination. As the author of The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (1908), the first American monograph dedicated to Nietzsche’s life and thought, Mencken popularized a Nietzsche with a searing intellect and ruthless wit, armed with an unapologetically differentiated view of human natures and guided only by the gospel of “prudent and intelligent selfishness, of absolute and utter individualism.” Mencken’s Nietzsche was indifferent to the weepy resentment of the Christian-minded and racially inferior “under-dogs” in American life.

Predictably, many religious commentators confirmed Mencken’s portrait of a hypertrophied egoist, not to endorse Nietzsche’s philosophy but to prevent it from drawing young hearts and minds away from Christian ethics. Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist minister and leading light of the liberal Social Gospel movement, spoke for a generation of religious reformers who regarded Nietzsche’s philosophy as the disturbing reflection of the brutal, tooth-and-claw social ethics of laissez-faire industrialization. Modern Christians, Rauschenbusch argued, would need to reformulate their convictions as “the direct negation of Nietzsche.”

Literary radicals and socialist reformers protested both versions of Nietzsche, offering interpretations of their own. While anarchist Emma Goldman enlisted Nietzsche’s concept of “slave morality” to challenge the fearful psychology behind American racism, gender inequalities, and militaristic nationalism, the young progressive Walter Lippmann marshaled Nietzsche’s epistemology in his revolt against the airy idealism of late-19th-century political thought and his quest for a more pragmatic democratic theory.

Yet despite the competing uses of Nietzsche’s philosophy in the opening decades of the century, a theme runs throughout. Readers both enthusiastic and enraged described their experience with Nietzsche in deeply private terms; indeed, many of them confessed to feeling as though Nietzsche had developed his philosophy expressly for them. As Mencken put it, his own ideas “were plainly based on Nietzsche; without him I’d never have come to them.”

The prominent Harvard philosopher Josiah Royce was an early critic of this American tendency to craft a Nietzsche in one’s own image. Though himself a philosophical idealist in an age when his friend William James’s pragmatism was pulling academic philosophy in another direction, Royce nevertheless recognized in Nietzsche’s assaults on idealism a serious meditation on the new moral rigors of the modern world. Royce argued that Nietzsche’s philosophy of the Übermensch expressed beautifully the struggle of man in his personal quest to discover for himself what his individuality means. Royce understood the popular temptation of individual American readers to declare Nietzsche a prophet of their own, and enlist his philosophy to sanction the conventional self or the vision of society they already held. However, Royce insisted that Nietzsche’s philosophy was a summons to a higher aspiration, a more demanding vision. For Royce, Nietzsche called upon his readers to create the terms by which they would create a moral self or society yet to come.

No one was more instrumental in popularizing Nietzsche’s image of the liberated self as the font of its own spirituality than the Lebanese-born, Boston-based poet and illustrator Kahlil Gibran. His 1923 book of prose poems, The Prophet, became an instant bestseller in America. But before millions of readers over the course of the 20th century found inspiration in his poetic voice, using his words to guide them through brisses, baptisms, bar mitzvahs, graduations, weddings, and funerals, Gibran came to his quotable insights by way of Nietzsche. Gibran’s prophet, the fictional Almustafa, just like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, heralds the coming of a day when the higher soul lives beyond the ethical cage of good and evil: “[H]e who defines his conduct by ethics imprisons his song-bird in a cage.” Like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, Gibran’s Almustafa calls upon his readers to understand that “you are good when you are one with yourself.” Gibran regarded Nietzsche as “a great giant,” and, in a letter to a friend, confessed that “the more you read him the more you will love him. He is perhaps the greatest spirit in modern times.” But for Gibran, Nietzsche’s genius was in helping him to discover his own. As he later reportedly put it, “Nietzsche took the words out of my mind. He picked the fruit off the tree I was coming to.” Gibran, like so many American readers before and after him, understood Nietzsche’s exhortation to the liberated intellect as his own conscience announcing its arrival.

Just a year after the publication of The Prophet, Americans witnessed the awful potential of Nietzschean self-construction when two University of Chicago students, Nathan F. Leopold Jr. and Richard Loeb, randomly selected 14-year-old Bobby Franks and murdered him in cold blood. The national news published the teenagers’ morbid confessions while an army of experts rushed to explain the roots of their pathologies: their wealthy backgrounds and poor Jewish genetic constitutions, their high IQs and low moral development. But all the arguments about why these boys killed tracked back to a common cause: They thought they were Nietzschean supermen.

In what became known as the “trial of the century,” Leopold and Loeb’s high-profile defense lawyer, Clarence Darrow, admitted that the pair killed Bobby Franks, though “not for money, not for spite, not for hate. They killed him as they might kill a spider or a fly, for the experience.” An avid reader of Nietzsche himself, Darrow could understand the philosopher’s ineluctable appeal. He explained to the judge—having persuaded his clients to plead guilty so as to avoid a jury trial—that Nietzsche offered a powerful “criticism of all moral codes as the world understands them; a treatise holding that the intelligent man is beyond good and evil; that the laws for good and the laws for evil do not apply to those who approach the superman.” Darrow hoped to distribute some of the blame to the big publishing houses that printed Nietzsche’s works and to the University of Chicago’s library for making them accessible to his clients. But in all of Darrow’s efforts to depict Leopold and Loeb as victims of Nietzsche’s philosophy, to suggest that it had “destroyed” their lives, he intimated that it was their mistake to think that they were the supermen Nietzsche had in mind. (In the end, they were given life sentences.)

The tainted image of Nietzsche’s philosophy as an endorsement of a grotesque, unbridled self that was popularized by the Leopold and Loeb trial lasted just long enough to be confirmed by Benito Mussolini’s hypermasculine theatrics and Adolf Hitler’s racialist vitriol. Though political commentators in the 1930s and early ’40s debated the connections between Italian Fascism and German National Socialism, the dictators’ shared exaltation of Nietzsche helped Americans identify their complementary worldviews. Mussolini left no doubt about the importance of Nietzsche: “I am sure that he is the most impressive and influential author of modern Europe.”

In the years leading up to World War II, American popular and scholarly commentators began interpreting Nazism’s emphasis on the Aryan race as an expression of Nietzsche’s “blond beast” and “master morality,” neither of which recognized any law above the “will to power.” With increasing revulsion, American newspapers reported on the spectacle of the “Nietzscheanization” of German politics. Though some who wrote about the Nazification of Nietzsche wondered if the Nazis had gotten Nietzsche right, they did note how his rejection of bourgeois values, democracy, and Christian sympathy made it easy for the Nazis to enlist him. Could anyone dispute how trippingly Nietzsche’s rhetoric—such as his dismissal of democracy as “the historic form of the decay of the State” and his praise for “the magnificent blond brute, avidly rampant for spoil and victory”—flowed from Nazi tongues through bullhorns at National Socialist conventions and marches? Confirming the popular consensus on Nietzsche’s responsibility for Axis horrors, The New York Times informed readers in 1943 that Hitler had sent Mussolini a specially bound edition of the philosopher’s complete works for the Duce’s 60th birthday.

But barely a decade passed before Nietzsche’s American career experienced another dramatic reversal, as he went from being seen as the mastermind of totalitarianism abroad to the hero of critics left and right eager to root it out at home. The task of rescuing Nietzsche for the Cold War fight against cultural repression fell to a German-Jewish émigré, Princeton University philosopher Walter Kaufmann, who himself, as a teenager in 1939, had had to flee the murderous regime that worshiped a Nazified Nietzsche. Beginning with his monumental 1950 study Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, and subsequently with his hugely popular Existentialism From Dostoyevsky to Sartre (1956), in which he established Nietzsche’s importance to existential thought, as well as decades of Nietzsche translations, Kaufmann vigorously worked to rescue Nietzsche’s philosophy from its damaged reputation.

Taking exception to the dominant views of Nietzsche as a freakish aberration from Enlightenment epistemology and liberal humanism, Kaufmann sought to establish him as an important interlocutor within these traditions. He presented a Nietzsche for the enlightened everyman—a philosopher of unmistakable unity and clarity, unimpressed with physical manifestations of power and scornful of ideologies. Nietzsche talked hard talk, but only because he privileged the “hardness of the creator who creates himself.” Nietzsche’s philosophy was not for the man in the mass; Nietzsche wrote for the “single one.” Yet Kaufmann averred that there were few “single ones” capable of the philosophical exegesis and enlightened self-mastery Nietzsche endorsed, concluding that “some people are more favored by nature than others.” No interpreter did more than Kaufmann to popularize a privatized Nietzsche for the select few.

Kaufmann’s vision of Nietzsche defining the struggle for authentic selfhood worked its way into virtually all registers in Cold War thought. For existentialist seekers of self-sovereignty in the face of an indifferent universe, postwar political liberals anxious about the deadening effects of mass political ideologies, and sociologists and literary critics concerned about the loss of authenticity and “inner-directedness” of modern man, Kaufmann’s Nietzsche gave them an armory of words and concepts. Indeed, this privatized Nietzsche proved so salient that it carried on in American Cold War culture in different forms, right up until “the end of history.”

Nietzsche as philosopher of and for the distinctive, private self animates one of the most prominent of the immediate post–Cold War texts—political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s End of History and the Last Man (1992). Because one of Fukuyama’s premises was that the American combination of liberal democracy and capitalism was proving to be the “final form of human government,” critics alternately lauded and derided the book as an expression of American triumphalism. But this misses Fukuyama’s larger point. While he indeed argued that world history was leading to a universalization of the American model—as evidenced by the collapse of Soviet communism—this alone did not capture the “deeper and more profound question . . . [about] the goodness of liberal democracy itself.” Here, he turned to “Nietzsche’s greatest fear . . . that the ‘American way of life’ should become victorious,” and one of the book’s aims was to explain why his fear was warranted.

Fukuyama used Nietzsche’s characterization of democracy as the triumph of “slave morality” to frame the book, drew chapter titles and epigraphs from Nietzsche’s texts, and took the philosopher’s cautionary diagnosis of the slovenly “last men” to characterize the “typical citizen of a liberal democracy.” What mattered more than the survival of liberal democracy, Fukuyama maintained, was whether it was worthy of survival. Nietzsche disturbed Fukuyama with his vision of the “last men” waiting at the end of history, perfectly content to keep their bellies full and their heads low. Modern Americans were already showing evidence of this insidious contentment, Fukuyama lamented. They were too willing to settle for goodness, no longer capable of striving for greatness, a little too satisfied with liberal freedoms, and much too complacent to strive for individual distinction, valor, and “thymos” (“spiritedness”). In Fukuyama’s conception, Nietzsche was no jingoistic, chest-thumping unilateralist, but a fellow seeker for “thymotic” moral selfhood in a world after absolutes. The End of History may have been largely concerned with geopolitical realignments at the end of the Cold War, but it was also a personal confession of one Nietzsche reader longing to achieve the rare self he wrote to and about.

None other than Allan Bloom, Fukuyama’s former mentor at Cornell University, understood Friedrich Nietzsche’s potency in American life by century’s end. With Nietzsche’s books filling college syllabuses; entire courses devoted to his philosophy; our movies, television shows, and popular music peppered with his phrases; and images of his furrowed brow and imposing mustache emblazoned on our coffee cups, T-shirts, and bumper stickers, it was not hard to believe, as Bloom had, that Nietzsche is us. But as the uses of the philosopher over the long 20th century testify, he only became an American “us” because so many readers with diverse moral, intellectual, and political commitments and temperaments first discovered in the pages of The Gay Science, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and Twilight of the Idols an American “me.” The history of Nietzsche in America is a story of individual readers coming to terms with themselves and their country, as they imagined Nietzsche speaking to and of them. If there is a Nietzsche for all seasons, it is because there was a Nietzsche for every self.

On his 44th birthday, in October 1888, Nietzsche found an occasion to reflect upon his life’s work, and began to write his autobiography, Ecce Homo. He recalled how his entire intellectual career had been greeted with a deafening silence. And so it is tempting to view his chapter titles, including “Why I Am So Wise,” “Why I Am So Clever,” and “Why I Write Such Great Books,” as testaments to his brutally wounded ego. Though Nietzsche was thrilled at the prospect that one day readers would have ears to hear and eyes to see his once untimely message, he also worried about what potential “followers” might do in his name. He argued that his philosophy was written for generations yet unborn, and he shuddered to think of what might happen to his name after he was gone. And though madness was closing in on him when he wrote Ecce Homo, he uttered a truth borne out by his posthumous American career. For when Nietzsche referred to himself as a “Destiny,” it is hard not to see this as a mark of unparalleled foresight rather than pathetic self-delusion. When he wrote, “I have a terrible fear that one day I will be pronounced holy,” perhaps he could see what was coming.

About the Author

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen is the Merle Curti Associate Professor of History at the University of Wisonsin, Madison, and author of American Nietzsche: A history of an Icon and His Ideas, recently published by the University of Chicago Press.

More From This Issue