Skip to main content

American Nietzsche

A History of an Icon and His Ideas

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.

464 pages | 21 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2011

History: American History, History of Ideas

Philosophy: History and Classic Works


"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."

Alexander Star | New York Times Book Review

"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

"More than any other European thinker, Nietzsche is alive in our cultural bloodstream. . . . 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 her elegant and revealing account of America’s reckoning with the German thinker."

Thomas Meaney | Wall Street Journal

"[A] lively history. . . . With vigor and intelligence, American Nietzsche covers a great deal of ground. . . . Ratner-Rosenhagen is a superb listener."—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

"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."

Library Journal

"Ratner-Rosenhagen’s book, while technically the work of an intellectual historian, . . should be made compulsory reading for philosophers."

Times Higher Education

"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 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

"An exquisitely and exhaustively researched work. . . . American Nietzsche argues that all appropriation [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."

National Review

"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 last truth with a hammer."

Die Welt

"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.’ "


“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

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Transatlantic Crossings: The Aboriginal Intellect Abroad


The Making of the American Nietzsche
Nietzsche and the European Axis of American Cosmopolitanism
The Nietzsche Vogue
The Persona of Nietzsche
Launching “Nietzschean” and “Nietzscheism” into American English

The Soul of Man under Modernity
Nietzsche and the Problems of Modern Thought
Unapologetic Catholic Apologetics
The Social Gospel and the Practicability of Christianity
Nietzsche’s Service to Christianity
Jesus of Nazareth, Nietzsche of Naumburg

The American Naturalization of the Übermensch
The Übermensch in the Popular Imagination
Self-Overcoming and Social Uplift
Modern Whirl and Romantic Self-Abandonment
The Übermensch and the German National Mind
The Übermensch at War and the “Made in Germany” Generation
To Each His Own Übermensch

Nietzsche as Educator
Experiencing Intellect; or, World-Making Words
Imitatio Nietzsche
The “Gay Science” of Cultural Criticism
The Modern Intellect and Prophetic Longing

Devotions: The Letters
Nietzsche Possession, Possessing Nietzsche
Nietzschean Self-Fashioning
Nietzsche Pilgrimage
Pathos of Distance from Democratic Culture

Dionysian Enlightenment
Walter Kaufmann, German Émigrés, and Nietzsche as Hitler’s Exile
Nietzsche as Problem Thinker
Nietzsche and the Nazis
Nietzschean Experimentalism and Jamesian Pragmatism
Kaufmann’s Nietzsche for All and None

Antifoundationalism on Native Grounds
Harold Bloom and the Quest for Emersonian Priority
Richard Rorty: Fusing the Horizons between Nietzsche and the Pragmatists
Stanley Cavell: Nietzsche, Emerson, and American Philosophy Finding Its Way Home
Thinking about American Thinking

Nietzsche Is Us

Selected Bibliography


American Historical Association: John H. Dunning Prize

Journal of the History of Ideas: Morris D. Forkosch Prize

The Society for U.S. Intellectual History: S-USIH Annual Book Award

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press