A vast majority of Americans who read any economists at all read exactly one economist, and the vast majority of Americans who read exactly one economist read Paul Krugman in the New York Times. One can see the danger of a large swath of the American populace’s relying on the views of a single thinker for their understanding of such a broad and complex field of inquiry. Especially since, for a thinker to have such a broad cultural presence, he must be middlebrow, or present himself as such, and he must be easily digestible. In the field of canonical Western philosophy, Friedrich Nietzsche presents the same sort of problem. If an American has read any philosophy at all, she has probably read Nietzsche.
But Nietzsche was not middlebrow — he despised that set — and his thought was far from digestible. And yet he is ubiquitous in American culture, and not just among the mopey suburban kids who shuffle into our universities each year with well-worn copies of On the Genealogy of Morals. No, Nietzsche has been with mainstream America, and for over a century: Clarence Darrow felt the need to discourse at length on Nietzsche’s morality before the judge set to determine the fates of his clients, Messrs. Leopold and Loeb, who purported to have acted on behalf of Nietzsche if not at his behest.
Nor were the murderers alone in their esteem for him. The list of Nietzsche’s admirers in turn-of-the-20th-century America was a veritable who’s who of (largely leftist) men of arts and letters: Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Eugene O’Neill, Walter Lippmann, Khalil Gibran, and H. L. Mencken, among others. By the Cold War, Nietzsche had even been made fit for the masses. In an editorial voice that smells of stale pipe smoke and Brylcreem, the premiere 1953 issue of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy announces: “We like our apartment. We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex . . .” By 1966, even Time was in on the act, running a shock-and-awe cover that asked “Is God Dead?”
How did all this happen? How was the mad, mustachioed, Teutonic philosopher of the hammer rendered safe for American consumption, and what — if you’ll forgive the metaphor — came out the other end? Answering that question is the task of Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s American Nietzsche, an exquisitely and exhaustively researched work in the socio-history of ideas.
In an early section on young Nietzsche’s intellectual development, we learn that before any American could even crack the covers of a Nietzsche book, the man’s philosophy was already heavily American, at least by provenance. Ratner-Rosenhagen has it that Nietzsche best loved and was most lastingly influenced by the ur American Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, and that he traveled everywhere with his heavily annotated German edition of Emerson’s Essays, from time to dreary time seeking intellectual refuge in his safe harbor.
Though it was news to me, this connection makes a fair bit of sense. Emerson was preoccupied with the Promethean role of genius — of greatness — in the affairs of mankind, a preoccupation Nietzsche would take to exhilarating and terrifying new places. But while antebellum Emerson despaired that America seemed congenitally to lack great men, a half century later the brash, dark musicality of Nietzsche’s writing made it an anthem for an American culture finally ready to enter its angsty adolescence — that phase when we become simultaneously aware of both our waxing strength and our great vulnerabilities, of both our potential and our finitude; in short, the time when “greatness” becomes a live psychological issue. The Nietzsche vogue arrived in American literary circles at just the time that our collective psyche had progressed to a state in which it both realized its long cultural inferiority to the Old World and suddenly cared about it. (Theretofore, one supposes, we had been too busy making things.) No one better personified this view of Nietzsche as a cure for civilizational low self-esteem than H. L. Mencken, the early Nietzsche popularizer who hated the quintessential American on his way to becoming one.