American Nietzsche. A History of an Icon and His Ideas by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen (review)
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Reviewed by
Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen. American Nietzsche. A History of an Icon and His Ideas Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2012. 450 pages.

Nietzsche’s corpus offered European philosophers a conceptual playground. Throughout the twentieth century, monographs systematically reinterpreted and reconciled Nietzsche’s master concepts such as the will to power, the [End Page 1263] eternal recurrence, the Übermensch, and the revaluation of values. The most prominent include Heidegger’s four-volume study (1936–1940); Karl Jaspers’ Nietzsche: An Introduction to the Understanding of His Philosophical Activity (1936); George Bataille’s On Nietzsche (1945); and Gilles Deleuze’s Nietzsche and Philosophy (1962). Jennifer Ratner-Rosnehagen reminds readers in American Nietzsche. A History of an Icon and His Ideas that Americans were also probing readers of Nietzsche; even if their readings did not always assume an exclusively philosophical form. Ratner-Rosenhagen dedicates her book to unearthing the rich and forgotten American archives of Nietzsche’s cultural receptions that paralleled his metaphysical treatments on the other side of the Atlantic. She demonstrates how Nietzsche remained a fixture throughout the long American twentieth century by tracing his receptions across literary, religious, political, as well as philosophical realms.

American Nietzsche is a reception history. Behind it lurks the thorny problem that Nietzsche has always posed for reception histories. For those giants of twentieth century European philosophy, reading Nietzsche was like playing on a conceptual jungle gym with him. That is to say the value of their monographs depends less on their fidelity to what Nietzsche really said than on their playfulness: how idiosyncratically each recruits Nietzsche in service of the author’s own project. The problem for reception histories is thus: does an authoritative account of Nietzsche exist that could serve as a basis for comparing his disparate readings? Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen tackles the problem by writing American Nietzsche as a Rezeptionsgeschichte, or a history of creative appropriations. She affords each reception equal weight, regardless of whether it conforms to the Nietzschean letter. The problem of what Nietzsche really meant is never posed. Ratner-Rosenhagen’s is not the first Rezeptionsgeschichte of this kind. Steven Ascheim’s The Nietzsche Legacy in Germany 1890–1990 (Berkeley: U of California P, 1992); Eric Forth’s Zarathustra in Paris (Illinois: Northern Illinois UP, 2001); and the recent edited volume Interpreting Nietzsche: Reception and Influence (London: Continuum, 2011) are exemplary. Given the density of Nietzsche studies, it is a feat that American Nietzsche manages to rejuvenate the field by following his reception to fertile American soil.

The impact also resonates through intellectual history generally. Ratner-Rosenhagen extrapolates from Nietzsche’s case to reflect on what constitutes the very notion of a reception. In a methodological interlude, she examines personal letters written to Nietzsche that did not formulate their authors’ thoughts in systematic, let alone published form. She takes it as her project to rethink what counts as a reception by resisting the picture of readers as passive vessels into which the historian pours Nietzsche’s ideas. Fan mail demonstrates a productive dimension in “how readers used Nietzsche’s words to imagine new moral and intellectual worlds for themselves” (208). Ratner-Rosenhagen’s project of writing, as it were, a production history animates the book’s close attention to Nietzsche’s cultural influence and sets the book’s methodology apart from other histories of his reception abroad. [End Page 1264]

Each chapter is organized chronologically and thematically. They march through the long twentieth century following the waves along which Americans read Nietzsche. Each wave concerns both the content of ideas received and the channel of reception. The book opens with Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom Nietzsche read as a young Gymnasium student. Ratner-Rosenhagen mines Nietzsche’s personal library at Weimer both to illuminate the neglected influence on Nietzsche and to signal her recurring method of closely reading marginalia. Following her account of Nietzsche’s enthusiasm for the American philosopher, Ratner-Rosenhagen demonstrates how, like in Europe, Nietzsche was first read as literature outside the academy. The first chapter examines how the arts critic James Gibbons Huneker first popularized Nietzsche in the States in the short-lived journal M’lle New York from 1895 to 1898. The...