My Own Private Nietzsche: An American Story: The German Philosopher Whose Ideas Would Leave an Indelible Mark on Europe Was Embraced by Americans Eager to See in Him a Reflection of Their Own Image

Article excerpt

ON SUNDAY, APRIL 27, 1913, 67-YEAR-OLD JENNIE Hintz of Yonkers, New York, penned the first of two long letters to Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche, Friedrich Nietzsche's sister and literary executor. Hintz, a self-described "spinster," introduced herself as a "great admirer of your brother's philosophy and his morals." There was so much to tell Forster-Nietzsche, so much to reflect on--with every stroke of her rusty German Schrift, Hintz etched her longings and disappointments into the stationery. She shared a bit of her background (she was born in Konigsburg, moved to Boston at age 10, and now lived in Yonkers with her sister's family), chronicled her break from Christianity as a teenager, and confessed her frustrations in trying to find her own "voice." She explained that she felt drawn to Nietzsche precisely because "in many points I had already arrived at these truths before He expressed them, but I remained mute keeping them for myself."

Learning about his catastrophic mental collapse in 1889, which extinguished his mind and left his body to languish until his death in 1900, "brought me to tears," she wrote. Had she only known that this suffering saint existed, "that He had the courage to write his ideas out and to publish them, already in 1887 I could have come to him, stood by his side, and proved to him that she was "another soul who understood him." Rather than give in to frustration, though, she understood that she must turn to the resources in herself. After all, that is what Nietzsche had taught her: not the truth, but how one finds it in and for oneself.

Hintz was not alone in her fascination with Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). In the closing years of the 1890s, as Nietzsche entered the final phase of his mental twilight, his philosophy experienced a popular dawn in the United States. It was at this time that discussions of his thought began studding philosophical journals, literary magazines, political manifestoes, Sunday sermons, and public lectures. American readers took an interest not only in Nietzsche's radical ideas, but also in the tortured life that gave birth to them. They examined why his pious upbringing as the son of a Lutheran pastor gave way to atheism, catalogued his battery of illnesses, questioned why he left his university professorship for a lonely life of intellectual itinerancy, assessed friendships collapsed and abandoned, and debated whether "madness," "genius," or "mad genius" was the appropriate explanation for his tragic biography. The interest in Nietzsche grew so dramatically that by 1910 observers could, without hyperbole, claim that it was one of the most significant "intellectual romances" of the period. Virtually unknown during his productive lifetime in his native Germany, now, across the Atlantic, in an America he had known little of, Friedrich Nietzsche had become a posthumous popular celebrity and public intellectual.


When Hintz professed her reverence for Nietzsche in 1913, the American "Nietzsche vogue" (as it was referred to at the time) was only in its infancy. Indeed, what looked like a fleeting intellectual fashion in the 1910s proved so durable that by 1987 it had accomplished, in the words of University of Chicago classics scholar Allan Bloom, nothing less than the "Nietzscheanization" of the American mind. In The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom surveyed the wreckage of late-20th-century "value relativism" in American culture and traced it back to the 1930s and '40s, when German-speaking intellectual emigres fleeing Nazism brought Nietzsche's philosophy with them as they found refuge in the American academy. According to Bloom, though they introduced Americans to Nietzsche's terrifying insights into the bankruptcy of Western thought and morality, these refugee scholars also instructed them in the larger European cultural framework from which they had come. But as his philosophy made its way from the academy into the radicalized culture of the 1960s, it became transfigured into a blank check for late-20th-eentury "nihilism, American style. …


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