The Closing of the American Nietzsche
American Nietzsche bills itself as a capacious history of the American reception of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). But as she takes us through a cacophonous century of readers, hostile and generous alike, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen also tells the story of an America that cannot but see itself through European eyes—one European’s in particular.
Perhaps Nietzsche is so appealing to America because his thought can appear as a sort of a homecoming, the return of a prodigal son. The father in this case is Ralph Waldo Emerson, who exerted an early and ongoing influence on Nietzsche. He took Emerson’s subjunctive from the 1838 “Divinity School Address”—“Men have come to speak . . . as if God were dead”—and made it a thundering exclamation in the mouth of a madman in his Gay Science of 1882. In the margin of Emerson’s essay “Spiritual Laws,” Nietzsche wrote the phrase “Ecce Homo,” which would become the title of his infamous autobiography. In a discarded section from Ecce Homo (1888), Nietzsche called Emerson “a good friend” and “a unique case”—unique among
Nietzsche’s intellectual gods, Ratner-Rosenhagen remarks, because he is the only one he did not kill.
About the Author
Charles M. Stang is assistant professor of early Christian thought at Harvard University. This is his first piece for Commentary.