Thomas Common asks “Will Nietzsche Come Into Vogue in America?” (1910)

1845-1945, Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Common / Friday, July 16th, 2021

Thomas Common was one of the early translators of Nietzsche into English, and was part of a small group of advocates of Nietzsche in the Anglosphere. Common appeared in the egoist journal The Eagle and the Serpent (1889 – 1927). Common also published his own journal, Notes for Good Europeans. Egoist titan Benjamin R. Tucker described Notes for Good Europeans in Volume XIV Number 23 of his journal Liberty (September 1904): “The contents of the magazine are both good and bad — depending on the ‘point of view.’ The subjects range from a sober discussion of Shakespeare and quotations from Bernard Shaw and others to an unmeasured laudation of the rantings of Ragnar Redbeard.”

This article, from the July 1910 issue of Current Opinion, shows that Nietzsche’s foothold into the American psyche was still unsure, though he’d had a number of prominant advocated in the US. H.L. Mencken was certainly Nietzche’s most high-profile early American advocate, and in Mencken’s cirsle of friends were two others: James Huneker and Benjamin DeCasseres. It was Huneker who probably introduced the greatest number of Americans at that time to the other iconoclastic German, Max Stirner, in his New York Times article that announced the new publication of The Ego and His Own.


Thomas Common

*The Works of Friedrich Niezsche. Edited by Oscar Levy. The Macmillan Company.
* Nietzsche in Outline and Aphorism. By A. Orage. Chicago: The A. C. McClurg Company.
* The Gist of Nietzsche. Arranged by H. L. Mencken. Boston: John W. Luce & Company.
* Men Versus the Man. A Correspondence between Robert Rives La Monte, Socialist, and H. L. Mencken, lndividualist. Henry Holt & Company.

The neurotic but strangely fascinating “philosopher with the hammer,” Friedrich Nietzsche, has begun to invade this country. “Nietzsche is in the air,” Dr. Joseph Jacobs remarks in the New York Times Saturday Review. Six volumes of a projected complete translation of his works are now in currency here. A handbook on Nietzsche, written by an Englishman, has been re-published in Chicago. A collection of epigrams, entitled “The Gist of Nietzsche,” is offered by Henry L. Mencken, of Baltimore, author of “The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche” and champion of that same philosophy in a newly issued written debate with a Socialist. Mr. Mencken, who undoubtedly has done more than any other writer in this country to spread Nietzsche’s gospel, calls attention to the fact that “Nietzsche has been breaking into print of late with conspicuous assiduity”:

“The theological reviews denounce him in every issue as a natural son of Judas Iscariot and Lucretia Borgia. The yellow journals connect him with ‘waves of crime’ and ‘the decay of the churches’—spelling his name Nietsche, Neitzche, Nitshe, Neatzsche, Nitysche, Nittsche, Neitzshy, Nitschie, Nietzschy and Niscksy, according to their degrees of ignorance. In the uplift magazines he is becoming as prominent as Dr. Woods Hutchinson and Judge Ben B. Lindsay. In the New York Nation—last stronghold of the Harvardocentric theory of the universe—his name is mentioned in the same paragraph with those of immortal Rollos and Waldos. Only The Ladies’ Home Journal and The War Cry have yet to find him out.”

The slow but persistent growth of Nietzsche’s fame is one of the intellectual romances of our time. When he died, bereft of reason, ten years ago, no one could have predicted the extent of the influence he was to exert. Nothing less than a library of comment, interpretation and criticism has grown up around his name. Some of his phrases have become household words. His books, which were printed at his own expense and hardly taken seriously during his lifetime, have since been pronounced masterpieces and translated into many tongues. A German critic, Robert Mayer, speaks of Nietzsche’s rhapsodic poem, “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” as the greatest production of German literature since Goethe’s “Faust.” Bernard Shaw goes even further in calling the same poem “the first modern book that can be set above the Psalms of David at every point on their own ground.”

Two American estimates of Nietzsche of more than usual penetration appear in recent issues of The Independent and The Smart Set. The first, by Edwin E. Slosson, excels as a piece of criticism, while the second, by Mr. Mencken, is strong on the positive and affirmative side. While differing widely in their estimates of Nietzsche, these writers both agree in conceding his compelling power.

Dr. Slosson takes as his point of departure a saying of Nietzsche’s to the effect that “every great philosophy is the confession of its originator and a species of involuntary and unconscious autobiography.” If this aphorism of Nietzsche’s be applied to himself, Dr. Slosson declares, the result is curious, for “never was there a greater contrast between the life and the creed of any man, moralist or immoralist, than existed in his case.” The argument continues:

“The eulogist of the strenuous life, he spent his in teaching classical philosophy and in philosophizing. War he regarded as the mother of virtues and pity the greatest of crimes, yet his part in the Franco-Prussian war was that of hospital nurse. His ideal was the great blond beast, ruthless, self-asserting, lustful, healthy, independent and dominant. He himself was frail, near-sighted, dyspeptic, neurasthenic, enslaved to drugs, celibate, timorous and retiring. He condemned and denounced women as inferior beings, to be kept as slaves and toys, yet it was to a woman, his sister, Frau Forster-Nietzsche, that he owed not only his life, during the last eleven years, when he was as helpless and witless as a babe, but also the establishment of his reputation after his death, through the collection, publication and elucidation of his manuscripts.”

If, then, Nietzsche’s philosophy was in any sense his autobiography, it was the autobiography. Dr. Slosson suggests, not of his actual but of his dream life. “All he could never be, all men ignored in him, that he was worth to himself.” The qualities he lacked appeared to him the greatest of all virtues, and the things he couldn’t do seemed to him of all things the ones most worth doing. “We all,” Dr. Slosson thinks, “have moods like this, a form of the natural attraction of opposites, of our awe of the incomprehensible and our admiration for the unattainable.” Moreover:

“Nietzsche was Hegelian in temperament. Every idea suggested to him its opposite and he was equally attracted by it. He reminds one of the pith ball of the laboratory, that is first drawn to an electrified body and clings to it for an instant, then is seized with repulsion and evermore flies from it. So Nietzsche is enamored in turn of Schopenhauer and of Wagner until he becomes charged with their spirit, and then conceives for them an intense aversion and antagonism. He treats even his own ideas in the same way, flying the next moment to the opposite pole of thought, becoming the iconoclast of his own idols. He was like most of us in seeing only one side of a thing. He was unlike most of us in seeing the other side of it soon after with equal intensity and exclusiveness. He never sees both at the same time in their real proportions and relationship. Had he kept to one point of view he would have exerted more influence over the world, but the fascination of his style lies in his vibrant thought. An Audrey Beardsley sketch, with its impossible masses of black and white, is more striking and sometimes brings out an idea better than a half tone.”

As Dr. Slosson sees him, Nietzsche was the incarnation of the spirit that denies. The very fact that a thing was established or accepted was enough to incite him to attack it. Finding woman honored, he depreciated her. Finding the spirit of democracy everywhere, he denounced it as a delusion and a snare. In a civilization saturated with the Christian feeling, he preached the gospel of the AntiChrist. While the trend of social development ran overwhelmingly in the direction of a subordination of the individual to organizations that increase his efficiency, he advocated an individualism bordering on Anarchism. He objected even to the communism of opinion: “My opinion is my opinion; another person has not easily a right to it. One must renounce the bad taste of wishing to agree with many people.” Altogether he was, in Dr. Slosson’s judgment, about as negative and iconoclastic a figure as could be conceived.

But Mr. Mencken, presenting Nietzsche sympathetically, sees him from a very different angle. The great value of Nietzsche, Mr. Mencken would have us believe, lay just in the fact that he reacted from Christian doctrine and emphasized the values that Christianity blurs or ignores. He went back to paganism to recover the values that Christianity had lost. To quote verbatim:

“Nietzsche’s whole philosophy grew out of his early inquiries, as a student of Greek, into the spirit of Hellenism. It needed no long investigation to show that this spirit of Hellenism was almost diametrically opposed to the spirit of Christianity. The Greeks, indeed, esteemed as virtues nearly all of the things banned by Christianity as vices and sins. Their notion of an admirable man was one who exhibited strength, ingenuity and what might be called assertive autonomy. A man who, on being smitten by a foe, turned the other cheek, would have excited their contempt. A man who, in the face of danger, threw down his arms and began to pray to the gods, would have made them laugh. They believed that life was a pleasant thing, and that it was worth while to fight for it. They believed in efficiency and egotism; they liked to do things—to rear great temples, to dance, to give gigantic shows, to make war, to amass wealth, to conquer.”

To Nietzsche the Greek spirit was beautiful, the Judaistic spirit repulsive. The first was an assertion of the will-to-live, the second an attempt to escape from facing real life by preaching self-sacrifice, humility, altruism, and similar sentiments. These principles, he contended, were the logical outcome of the oppression and suffering endured by the Jewish race; they may have served an admirable purpose in their time and place, but when they were taken over by the nations of western Europe, they became a positive hindrance to all that is best in humanity. Mr. Mencken tells us:

“Nietzsche believed that if the dominant races of the present day could be rid of the outworn and unworkable moral code of the Jews, they would make far more rapid progress than the world has ever seen. Out of this idea grew his celebrated conceptions—the higher man and the superman. The higher man is merely an efficient and ruthless man who has rid himself of all pious cant and hypocrisy. He is not a predatory bully, as many critics of Nietzsche seem to think, but an intelligent progressivist, with an eye not so much to his own immediate advantage as to the ultimate profit of the race. He wars upon the unfit chiefly because he doesn’t want them to contaminate the racial strain. He sees nothing honorable nor noble in poverty and humility, but only a confession of unfitness to survive. Let the weak die, he says, that the strong may not have them to drag along. Let the highest honors of the world go to those men who make the most successful war upon the forces and conditions which work against the race—disease, climate, distance, time, terrestrial catastrophes, religions, superstitions, handicapping customs and laws. Not only to the warrior the honor, nor only to the emperor and millionaire, but also to the explorer, the pathologist, the revolutionary, the iconoclast, the immoralist.”

Such, in crude outline, are the principal ideas of Nietzsche’s philosophy as Mr. Mencken presents it. Is it, he asks, insane, as many would have us believe? He answers:

“I am constrained to think not. In places it may tax the imagination, but in other places it makes an irresistible appeal to every reflective man. Twenty years ago Nietzsche was merely an interesting freak, but to-day you will find his notions elaborated in the writings of men whose sanity and title to leadership are unquestioned. Mr. Roosevelt borrowed copiously from Nietzsche for his essay on ‘The Strenuous Life’ —the most astonishing and most sincere of all his compositions. From Nietzsche Dr. Metchnikoff got his idea of a welcome death, and from Nietzsche Dr. Eliot got two-thirds of the propositions in his New Religion. Take away his Nietzschean flavor, and Shaw would be a mere harlequin. Rid the world of Nietzsche, and the year of grace 1909 could show no living philosophy.”

The question arises, How far is the Nietzschean point of view likely to appeal to America? and the answers already given are manifold. Robert Rives La Monte, the Socialist opponent of Mr. Mencken in the debate already mentioned, finds in Walt Whitman all the healthiest elements in Nietzsche. His attitude suggests that Thus Spake Zarathustra will never supplant Leaves of Grass. Elbert Hubbard, on the other hand, looks to Emerson as a substitute for Nietzsche, and establishes (in The Philistine) this rather ingenious antithesis between Emerson and Nietzsche:

“‘Behold! I teach you the Overman,’ might have been enunciated by Emerson. The Overman of Nietzsche aimed at a beyond-man. The Overman of Emerson is to be evolved in man. Nietzsche sought to manufacture a God; Emerson sought to fabricate a man. Nietzsche conceived power as something that primarily flowed out of man; Emerson conceived it as something flowing into man from the Oversoul—the shoreless sunken seas of the potential.”

A Socialist writer in Wilshire’s Magazine argues that if the “ruling classes” know their own business and want to stem the rising tide of Socialism, they will vigorously encourage the spread of Nietzsche’s ideas. He is led to this view after reading Mr. Mencken’s contribution to the Socialist-Individualist debate. It is not that he is won over by Mr. Mencken’s statements, but they form, he thinks, the most logical argument against Socialism he has ever seen in print. He says further:

“However, they possess one fatal drawback in the fact that the bourgeois dare not publicly use them against Socialism. Even if their truth were admitted, their general and public announcement by the ruling class would be the signal for the almost instant destruction of the present order of things. The Nietzschean philosophy and the logical deductions therefrom cannot be proclaimed from the capitalist housetops. They constitute a true individualist philosophy which must remain the secret possession of the individual—a philosophy which is not for ‘Men,’ but for ‘the Man.’ The philosophical legacy left by Friedrich Nietzsche to the ruling classes of the world is a sword which, if they dare to draw publicly in their own defence, will turn upon and slay them.

“Mr. Mencken has but pushed to their logical conclusion views which in embryo are held by many bourgeois opponents of Socialism, but which, lacking his courage, they dare not develop, and are consequently forced to occupy a shifty, evasive and apologetic position, which rightly draws upon them the contempt and ridicule of the Socialist.”

Dr. Joseph Jacobs, editor of The American Hebrew, seems to feel that Nietzsche’s philosophy has a great future in America. Nietzsche, he points out, is aristocratic to the core, America democratic to the depths. Nietzsche is essentially Hellenic, esthetic, America is Hebraic, ascetic. Nietzsche’s ideal is the solitude of the thinker, America’s the solidarity of the people. “In the midst of the dissatisfaction with Americanism, which is characteristic of the age,” Dr. Jacobs remarks, “it is refreshing, and, in many ways, instructive to consider a set of ideals so opposed and subversive of the American ones. Nietzsche is essentially one sided, but the side he presents happens to be the one hitherto unrepresented by American thinkers, and it therefore will have, in all probability, the greater attractiveness and influence on this continent.” Dr. Jacobs writes further (in The Times Saturday Review):

“Against slave morality he opposes a master morality based upon the higher selfishness of the masterful men with the will to power. Napoleon, it may be remembered, made a similar distinction between ‘la grande morale’ and ‘la petite morale,’ and men of the type of Napoleon, Caesar, and Borgia, were the types that Nietzsche desired to see rule and destroy much of the rotting conventions of the hour. It is a mistake to think that they were his type of Supermen. They were only the anti-Christs to prepare the way.

“There is a rude, rough vigor in all this which is immensely attractive amid all the overturning of the ideals—Nietzsche calls them idols—of today. His virile thought ranges over the whole field of modern culture, except the economic division, on which he does not judge. His works are as stimulating as a storm by the seaside; the salt spray lashes but invigorates you. The supreme self-confidence with which he gives utterance to his paradoxes and cynicisms has specially an attraction for little minds, who flatter themselves they are little Nietzsches.”

The New York Evening Post is unwilling to give Nietzsche much importance. It finds in the Anglo-Saxon mind a sanity which “feels instinctively that this boasted philosophy of strength is in reality a product of febrile weakness.” In similar spirit Dr. Slosson affirms:

“It is not likely that he will ever be much read in the United States. Nor is there any reason why he should be. Nietzsche in Germany represents the reaction from Schopenhauer. Never having had the disease in this country we do not need the antidote. It is inevitable that we, like the rest of the world, should be influenced more or less by some phases of Nietzschean thought, but it will not be directly.”

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