Thursday, May 31, 2012
Nietzsche's American Noontide: A Review of "American Nietzsche" by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen
Friedrich Nietzsche never traveled to the United States. He also rarely wrote about it and did not read most of the giants of the American literary canon (with the notable exception of Ralph Waldo Emerson). He scorned democracy and the quest for wealth as impediments to cultivating a strong self. Yet, somehow, Nietzsche has for over a century found a large, enthusiastic audience in America. Why have the writings of Nietzsche resonated with so many Americans from diverse backgrounds at disparate times in history? Why has his biography - unsuccessful writer turned madman - resonated so deeply with American intellectuals? In the most expansive study of American Nietzsche reception published, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen demonstrates why Nietzsche and his philosophy have gained traction in the United States despite being at odds with many of its 'fundamental' values: democracy, Christianity, and capitalism.
American Nietzsche has both a broad temporal and thematic scope. Like other Nietzsche reception studies, most famously Steven Aschheim's magisterial The Nietzsche Legacy in Germany, 1890-1990, Ratner-Rosenhagen's scope spans the entire twentieth century. She begins with how Nietzsche was imported to America by a few radical, Germanophilic intellectuals at the turn of the twentieth century and rapidly gained a following with the publication of English translations of his major works as well as landmark studies of Nietzsche by some of his more famous early converts like H.L. Mencken. This reception accelerated and broadened as the century progressed. As elsewhere, Nietzsche's philosophy and personality were appropriated across the political, religious (Protestants, Catholics, and Jews), cultural (radicals and conservatives), and social (rich and poor, immigrant and native, intellectual and non-intellectual) spectrums for divergent purposes.
The broad penetration of Nietzsche's ideas in America is brilliantly demonstrated by Ratner-Rosenhagen in her chapter, "Devotions: The Letters". In it, she quotes from Nietzsche fan mail sent to Elisabeth Foerster-Nietzsche gathered at the Nietzsche Achiv in Weimar during the interwar period. The breadth of the letters is illuminating. Some, written by German immigrants and native Americans fluent in German, complain of the poor English translations of Nietzsche and request German language copies of his works. Others tell Elisabeth of how her brother's philosophy liberated them from American-Protestant slave morality or taught them the importance of self-strengthening (204). The most shocking letters come from one John I. Bush of Duluth, Minnesota who claimed to be "One who is evil enough" and a Nietzschean ubermenschen (206-207). By using fan mail, Ratner-Rosenhagen successfully demonstrates both that Nietzsche's readership was diverse and that readers used Nietzsche to better understand themselves and America.
One of Ratner-Rosenhagen's signal successes is cataloging the diverse reactions to Nietzsche without passing judgment on the interpretations. Because Nietzsche was such an outspoken critic, there is a tendency to appropriate his critical voice when assessing his reception. Ratner-Rosenhagen deftly avoids facile discriminations positioning certain interpretations of Nietzsche as superior to others. She respects the views of all the characters in her book, no matter how far-fetched their requisition of Nietzsche's philosophy might have been. This is especially impressive when discussing the impact of Walter Kaufmann on postwar Nietzsche scholarship. Kaufmann's palatable version of Nietzsche as "salonfaehig existentialist" has been hotly debated over the last few decades. Though all believe his Nietzsche is flawed, the question of whether or not his interpretation of Nietzsche has value in a post-Cold War world remains up for debate. Ratner-Rosenhagen ably avoids the Kaufmann morass by cleaving closely to his historical significance as savior and redeemer of Nietzsche's philosophy after World War II instead of his impact on current Nietzsche scholarship.
American Nietzsche is a beautifully written and thoughtful examination of Nietzsche reception in the United States, but it is not without its difficulties. First and foremost, is a problem of audience. American Nietzsche assumes a great deal of familiarity with Nietzsche's writings. Ratner-Rosenhagen never gives an overview of Nietzsche's philosophy or any of his major concepts aside from the uebermensch. This restricts the possible audience for the book to intellectual historians and Nietzsche enthusiasts who are already familiar with his philosophy.
Second, Ratner-Rosenhagen strives, unsuccessfully, the problematize American Nietzsche in order to make it more than a reception study. For Ratner-Rosenhagen, Nietzsche's popularity in the United States demonstrates both "how American encounters with Nietzsche ignited and revealed larger anxieties about the source and authority of truth and values in a modern pluralist society" and "incited and exposed long-standing concerns about the conditions of American culture for intellectual life" (23-24). In both these respects Nietzsche was far from unique and American intellectual insecurity has been explored ad nauseum at least since Richard Hofstadter published Anti-intellectualism in American Life in 1963. Ratner-Rosenhagen's attempts to problematize Nietzsche's American reception distracts from her attention on the actual reception. For instance, her most successful chapter on American letters to the Nietzsche Archiv is dwarfed by lengthier, though less substantial, chapters on the penetration of Nietzsche into the discourse of American church officials and on the New Radicalism. These chapters tell us little about Nietzsche's American reception, but do support her dual problematics.
American Nietzsche is an essential read for American intellectual historians and Nietzsche enthusiasts. It provides a concise, yet thorough, examination of how Nietzsche's philosophy challenged and was accepted by many prominent American intellectuals. It fills a gaping hole in the American intellectual historiography and in Nietzsche studies. At times, Ratner-Rosenhagen unnecessarily problematizes her argument to inflate Nietzsche's significance in exposing American anxieties and their
intellectual inferiority complex vis-a-vis Europe. Even with these small difficulties, American Nietzsche brilliantly delineates how one of Europe's most controversial and misunderstood philosophers achieved fame in a United States seemingly at odds with many of his fundamental concepts.