Nietzsche's Numbers

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Nietzsche's Numbers

Cullen Nutt

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In our new issue, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen tells the peculiar story of America’s unlikely romance with Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher who famously proclaimed the death of God. Nietzsche (1844-1900) did not live long enough to bask in the American spotlight, notes Ratner-Rosenhagen, a historian at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and author of American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas. (See the review in the New York Times.) “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,” Ratner-Rosenhagen writes. She continues:

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.

The rapid rise of Nietzsche’s American star is striking, and it’s borne out by data of a distinctly contemporary sort. I searched for “Nietzsche” in Google’s Books Ngram Viewer, which graphs the occurrences by year of any word or phrase in Google’s vast collection of books. I limited my search to books published in the United States after 1890—translations of Nietzsche’s works first appeared in English in 1896, so starting a few years earlier provides a baseline. As Ratner-Rosenhagen promises, the results leave no doubt that talk of Nietzsche in the United States did indeed take off in the first decade of the 20th century.

Take a look at my graph. (FYI—The Y-axis shows the number of occurrences as a percentage of the total number of words in all the books published for a given year.) “Nietzsche” mentions spike around 1910, no doubt pushed upward by H. L. Mencken’s 1908 survey The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Mentions wax and wane until about 1950, when again they climb for two straight decades. It’s probably no coincidence that the Princeton philosopher Walter Kaufmann published hugely influential interpretations and translations of Nietzsche during that time.

Nor is it likely any coincidence that mentions of Nietzsche skyrocketed into the stratosphere beginning in the late 1980s. Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, which drew on Nietzsche in different ways and which made a big splash in the United States, were published in 1987 and 1992 respectively.

Nietzsche’s numbers tailed slightly at the turn of the millennium, but his appeal endures. “If there is a Nietzsche for all seasons,” Ratner-Rosenhagen writes, “it is because there was a Nietzsche for every self.”

Photo by lungstruck via flickr