American Nietzsche Cover





If you were looking for a philosopher likely to appeal to Americans, Friedrich Nietzsche would be far from your first choice. After all, in his blazing career, Nietzsche took aim at nearly all the foundations of modern American life: Christian morality, the Enlightenment faith in reason, and the idea of human equality. Despite that, for more than a century Nietzsche has been a hugely popular—and surprisingly influential—figure in American thought and culture.

In American Nietzsche, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen delves deeply into Nietzsche's philosophy, and America’s reception of it, to tell the story of his curious appeal. Beginning her account with Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom the seventeen-year-old Nietzsche read fervently, she shows how Nietzsche’s ideas first burst on American shores at the turn of the twentieth century, and how they continued alternately to invigorate and to shock Americans for the century to come. She also delineates the broader intellectual and cultural contexts within which a wide array of commentators—academic and armchair philosophers, theologians and atheists, romantic poets and hard-nosed empiricists, and political ideologues and apostates from the Left and the Right—drew insight and inspiration from Nietzsche’s claims for the death of God, his challenge to universal truth, and his insistence on the interpretive nature of all human thought and beliefs. At the same time, she explores how his image as an iconoclastic immoralist was put to work in American popular culture, making Nietzsche an unlikely posthumous celebrity capable of inspiring both teenagers and scholars alike.

A penetrating examination of a powerful but little-explored undercurrent of twentieth-century American thought and culture, American Nietzsche dramatically recasts our understanding of American intellectual life—and puts Nietzsche squarely at its heart.



John H. Dunning Prize from the American Historical Association (2013)

Society for U.S. Intellectual History Annual Book Award (2013)

Morris D. Forkosch Prize for the Best First Book in Intellectual History (2013)



"Today's inescapable and perplexing Nietzsche is not necessarily the same Nietzsche who inspired readers in the past; and it's the achievement of American Nietzsche to show how that is the case. . . . American Nietzsche is a sober work of intellectual history . . . consistently insightful." Alexander Star, The New York Times.

"What does our use and abuse of Nietzsche's thinking say about us? This is the interesting question that Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen sets out to answer in American Nietzsche, her elegant and revealing account of America's reckoning with the German thinker. She samples the gamut of responses to Nietzsche in an effort to explain how nearly every segment of American culture 'discovered in Nietzsche a thinker to think with.'" Thomas Meaney, The Wall Street Journal.

"This is a superb book, widely and imaginatively researched, boldly argued, and vigorously written. The story it tells is compelling and populated by a fascinating array of characters, including almost everyone of importance in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American intellectual history: including Emerson, William James, Santayana, Mencken, and a host of lesser folk." Jackson Lears, Rutgers University.*

"Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen's elegantly written study traces Nietzsche's peculiar presence in U.S. intellectual life from the 1880s to the 1980s. With verve and a critical eye for surprising detail, the book shows how Nietzsche arrived on this side of the Atlantic through the many American students who went to Jena, Leipzig, or Berlin, only to return home with Nietzsche's critique of modernity under their arm." Christian J. Emden, The American Historical Review.

American Nietzsche "is an elegant and rigorous piece of work that straddles over the Atlantic expanse with a depth of insight, a subtlety of lateral moves, and a clarity of expression that are rare to encounter in any human science, and especially in philosophy, which is my own. As a fellow explorer of traveling theories I know firsthand the difficulty, but also profoundly value the promise of such a project, which never falls in the trap of presuming the possibility of a simple appropriation or a translation assumed as a one-to-one correspondence." Giovanna Borradori, Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy (March 2013).*

A "lively history. . . . With vigor and intelligence, American Nietzsche covers a great deal of ground. . . . Ratner-Rosenhagen is a superb listener." Ross Posnock, The Nation.

"The major lesson of Ratner-Rosenhagen’s book, and its comedy, lies in her demonstration of how deftly the American genius has drawn on Nietzsche but cushioned and contained his challenge to democracy, religion, and humanitarianism in general." Adam Kirsch, Prospect.

"The history of ideas finally comes of age in this quiet, even modest, and yet brilliant, indispensable book." James Livingston, Journal of American History.

"A luminous and wide-ranging story of the depth and passion of American readers' attraction to Nietzsche. This is transnational intellectual history at its very best." Daniel T. Rodgers, Princeton University.*

"One of the book's finest accomplishments lies precisely in charting the large repertoire of anxieties, longings, awakenings and concerns that US encounters with Nietzsche elicited. . . . Ratner-Rosenhagen's book, while technically the work of an intellectual historian (if not because of that), should be made compulsory reading for philosophers." Costica Bradatan, Times Higher Education.

"An exquisitely and exhaustively researched work. . . . American Nietzsche argues that all appropriations [of Nietzsche] get the man wrong—or, at least, that none get him entirely right—but that the error is sort of beside the point, because each misappropriation is put to use in the grand, century-long project of helping America understand itself." Daniel Foster, National Review.

"American Nietzsche is an original contribution to trans-Atlantic intellectual history. Imaginatively conceived, it sheds considerable light on the still neglected influence of German thought on American thought and culture from Emerson down to the present. On top of that, Ratner-Rosenhagen deals with her surprisingly fresh topic in a lively, sharp, and often witty prose that is a pleasure to read." Richard King, University of Nottingham.*

A "fluid new book." Nina C. Ayoub, The Chronicle of Higher Education.

"Though the research apparatus brandished at the back of American Nietzsche is formidable, and though its prose and design are elegant, the most remarkable feature of this book is how much the author has discovered. Even if many of Nietzsche’s fans and critics are, inevitably, minor figures (and an entire chapter is devoted to ordinary Americans blown away by his genius), the general claim that Ratner-Rosenhagen advances is incontestable: Nietzsche has been inescapable." Stephen J. Whitfield, Journal of American Studies.

"American Nietzsche offers enthusiasts and critics of Nietzsche more than a formidable appendix that sets his legacy in a new context. Ratner-Rosenhagen finds an inventive way to tell the story of his reception with a deft sense of the contestations and communities that characterized Nietzsche’s American readership." Larry S. McGrath, Modern Language Notes.

"Exquisitely written." Andrew Hartman, Reviews in American History.

"In American Nietzsche, historian Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen tells the fascinating story of America’s complex relationship with Friedrich Nietzsche. Invoking examples from an absolutely staggering range of sources—which even includes early pieces of American fan mail sent to Nietzsche and his sister—the book reveals Nietzsche’s surprisingly pervasive impact on modern American thinking." John McHugh, The Review of Metaphysics.

"American Nietzsche bills itself as a capacious history of the American reception of the philosophy of Nietzsche. But as she takes us through a cacophonous century of readers, hostile and generous alike, Ratner-Rosenhagen also tells the story of an America that cannot but see itself through European eyes—one European's in particular. . . . Ironic, then, this American passion for Nietzsche, who himself lamented the American fetish for Europe—even in his beloved Emerson, whom he faulted for drinking too much from the 'milk glass' of German philosophy. Nietzsche wished Emerson would instead be, as Ratner-Rosenhagen puts it, 'perhaps a little more American.'" Charles M. Stang, Commentary.

"This is an outstanding book, exceptional in its density of data, sweep of coverage, interpretative skill, and multi-leveled significance. . . . The style is elegant and subtle, the interpretative stance insightful and phenomenologically disciplined, and the coverage of Nietzsche's twentieth century American interpreters who wrestled with his thought, life, and reception in the United States is varied. . . .  It offers a wealth of data with empathetic understanding, impeccable scholarship, and engaging insight." Yearbook of German-American Studies.

"Nietzsche may have seemed as American as cherry pie to many philosophical observers. But the larger point this excellent book delivers is not really about America at all, and in fact I suspect the focus of the book was restricted to a single continent mainly to provide a manageable volume to read. We also need books called European Nietzsche, Asian Nietzsche, African Nietzsche. If Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen chooses to oblige, I'll read them all." Levi Asher, Literary Kicks.

"Friedrich Nietzsche and America, how does this go together?  At first glance not at all. . . . But America eagerly soaked up the ideas of the German demolisher, who attacked every last truth with a hammer." Hannes Stein, Die Welt.

"Ratner-Rosenhagen's skillful combining of historical research and philosophical analysis in a way that is both accessible and informative makes this book a pleasure to read. Highly recommended." Scott Duimstra, Library Journal.

American Nietzsche "is neither a book about Nietzsche, nor one that would help us to interpret his work, except, perhaps, by accumulated negative example. And perhaps more surprisingly, neither is it purely about American 'Nietzscheans,' at least in the narrow sense of self-identified, dogmatic followers. Instead it is a cultural history of the phenomenon that Ratner-Rosenhagen has aptly called 'the Nietzsche image': a chronicle of the places, often improbable, where Nietzsche’s name, texts, ideas, and/or mustache have appeared in American usage, and the ends, often similarly unlikely, which they have been made to serve." Roger Bellin, The New Inquiry.

"A first-class academic book." Robert Fulford, The National Post.

"Ms. Ratner-Rosenhagen's book is written with charm and verve, and it discusses intelligently the many Americans, from Wilbur Urban in 1897 to Richard Rorty in our day, who have taken Nietzsche as their guide." Harvey C. Mansfield, Claremont Review of Books.

"This book furnishes a panoramic view of the reception of Nietzsche’s philosophy in America by begging the question of how a society known for its anti-intellectualism and steeped in Puritanical orthodoxy could provide cerebral refuge for the philosopher synonymous with WWI-era German militarism and the 'philosophical mastermind' of Nazi totalitarianism and brutality. . . . for readers of late-19th and early-20th-century American philosophy this is a must read." Brian Odom, The Washington Independent Review of Books.

"American Nietzsche is a major scholary event in more than one respect . . . it does not simply revive intellectual history as a valid methodological strategy . . . it revitalizes intellectual history in the context of a transcultural perspective which presents cultures as open and dynamic as well as interactive systems in motion." Herwig Friedl, De Gruyter.

"One of the salutary developments in the writing of American history is an effort to place that history in a transnational frame. Among the consquences is a growing interest in the transplantation of European ideas to American shores. Ratner-Rosenhagen has set a gold standard for such work in her remarkable study of the many (sometimes contradictory) 'Nietzsches' that have found a central place in American intellectual and cultural life since the turn of the 20th century." Robert Westbrook, The Christian Century.

"Ratner-Rosenhagen's book is beautifully written, well-researched, and exceptionally informative. . . . American Nietzsche is essential reading for those interested in the history of social theory and American social thought. Her work is a substantial contribution to the development of social theory, providing detailed information about the U.S. intellectual and cultural impacts of a theorist little known among American sociologists. . . . Works like American Nietzsche inform us about the historical contexts and life-worlds from which our problems and normative directions are fashioned." Robert J. Antonio, Contemporary Sociology.


Conducted by Christopher Shea, The Boston Globe, February 18, 2007.

Conducted by Rana Mitter, "Night Waves," BBC Radio 3, December 22, 2011.

Conducted by Steve Paulson, "To the Best of Our Knowledge," Wisconsin Public Radio, January 15, 2012.

Conducted by Emily Auerbach and Norman Gilliland, "University of the Air," Wisconsin Public Radio, March 16, 2014.



Talk given on CSPAN's "Book TV," "American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas," February 9, 2012.

Lecture given at the Chicago Humanities Fesitval, "American Nietzsche," November 11, 2012.

Lecture given as part of Horning Lecture Series at Oregon State University, "Nietzsche and Spirituality in the U.S.," March 6, 2014.