The popular origins of “superman": One finds it in the late romanticism of the serial novel; in Dumas pere: The Count of Monte-Cristo, Athos, Joseph Balsamo, for example. So then: many self-proclaimed Nietzscheans are nothing other than … Dumasians who, after dabbling in Nietzsche, “justified" the mood generated by the reading of The Count of Monte-Cristo."-- Antonio Gramsci.
I posted my review of the 1933 INVISIBLE MAN film not only on my blog, but on another site, CLASSIC HORROR FILM BOARD, that allows for some discussion of members' film reviews. In response I got a response that discussed in some detail the question of how fantasy-characters from prose and film anticipated the real-life tyrannical figures of World War II, which interested parties can read here. Ordinarily I don't have any compunctions about quoting posters on forums of all kinds, but I don't choose to reprint any of the observations by the poster Telegonus this time. Rather than arguing with any of the specific opinions expressed, I prefer at this time to discuss some of the questions relative to what the idea of the "superhuman" means within a literary context, as opposed to what it has come to mean in a philosophical or political context.
Nietzsche was certainly not the first to wax philosophical about the nature of larger-than-life conflict in art and life, but as we see in the Gramsci quote above, the German philosopher became associated almost indelibly with the idea of the ubermensch, variously translated as "superman" or "overman." Gramsci's own definition of the "superman" is a good deal looser than I would like, since it includes characters like "Athos" and the "Count of Monte Cristo," whom I personally regard as just above-average adventurous types. I can't speak to whether or not Dumas actually influenced Nietzsche or Nietzscheans generally, nor do I know anything about Dumas' fictional interpretation of historical figure-and-alleged-mage Joseph "Cagliostro" Balsamo. But in any case Dumas is far from the first literary figure to deal with larger-than-life conflict; Nietzsche and Nietzscheans generally would have probably encountered "superman" figures first in stories of myth and folklore.
Before one can ask what the idea of "the superman" means in the literary world, one must regard the world of literature as separated into two great intersecting worlds from our current POV: the pre-modern world and the modern world. The pre-modern literary world is one in which the majority of the populace at all or most times is illiterate and functions at an oral level of communication, and only a small minority is educated. Some mythic figures-- however one believes that they originate-- become the centers of religious complexes. Some figures, whatever their origins, become best known as figures in oral folklore, which on the whole would seem to be *principally* for entertainment.
In the case of religious myth-figures, some sort of extra-human power would seem to be implied in the very idea of religion. Mircea Eliade once commented that the hierophany (manifestation of a god) was always also a kratophany (manifestation of power), be it the strength of Heracles, the ability of Aphrodite to make mortals fall in love, or even the power to become a holy sacrifice, as with Dionysus in his form of Zagreus. Folklore proper, perhaps because it often stems from oral and/or rural roots, tends to deal more with clever if powerless trickster-heroes as well as types who possess superior power: types like the "Jack" of beanstalk-fame would seem to outnumber types like the German "Strong Hans."
I'll pass over the ways in which religious myths become transformed into literary myths, most often in the form of prose and poetic epics and theatrical enactments. One may see in theatrical plays a movement away from the "supermen" who proliferate in religion and prose epic, if only because such things are difficult to stage. But in any case these various manifestations of literary work remain pre-modern in terms of their overall cultural structure, no matter how many specific differences may exist between, say, the Greek Dark Ages and "classical Greece."
The printing press changes that cultural positioning by making possible the middle class, and thus eroding the power of "the Few" represented by the aristocracy and gradually placing more power in the hands of the "Many." Wikipedia gives this description of the incredible growth of literacy due to the effectiveness of the Gutenberg press:
European printing presses of around 1600 were capable of producing 3,600 impressions per workday. By comparison, movable type printing in the Far East, which did not know presses and was solely done by manually rubbing the back of the paper to the page, did not exceed an output of forty pages per day. The vast printing capacities meant that individual authors could now become true bestsellers: Of Erasmus's work, at least 750,000 copies were sold during his lifetime alone (1469–1536). In the early days of the Reformation, the revolutionary potential of bulk printing took princes and papacy alike by surprise. In the period from 1518 to 1524, the publication of books in Germany alone skyrocketed sevenfold; between 1518 and 1520, Luther's tracts were distributed in 300,000 printed copies.
The 1500s did not see the rise of a true "popular literature"-- a literature aimed at the "unwashed masses" who worked for a living. I would speculate that one was brewing even then, as well as in the intervening centuries. But the 19th century, for better or worse, becomes the flashpoint in which we observe the birth of a significant quantity of superhuman figures not born directly from well-known myths or religious stories. Some of these characters, like 1818's FRANKENSTEIN, were crafted with an eye toward the current culture of "high art," but became in time a vital icon of pop culture. Others, like DRACULA and THE INVISIBLE MAN-- both published nearly a century later, in 1897-- seem much more targeted toward a "bestseller crowd," though both have become classics recognized by at least some members of the literary community.
More importantly, this was the century in which the idea of literary "genres" became driven by audience appreciation, rather than by the approbation of the Few. Ghost stories, for example, had been in existence since mankind's beginnings. Yet only in the early 19th century-- in response to innovations in the late 18th, particularly from authors like Ludwig Tieck and E.T.A. Hoffmann-- did the ghost story become postulated as a form that others could imitate, as took place at the famous convocation at the Villa Deodati, the crucible from which FRANKENSTEIN in particular took shape.
As an American, I naturally tend to privilege the rise of genre-specific fiction magazines in the 1930s as a further elaboration of popular literature's growth. But had such genre-specific magazines never arisen in the United States, it seems obvious that such developments were also taking place in Germany and France before the rise of the pulps. A futher effect of genre specificity oriented toward a popular readership meant that one did not necessarily have to write just one fantastic story about a vampire or an invisible man. One could write endless stories of "supermen" in many situations, whether one concentrated upon an English explorer constantly coming across lost cities (Allan Quatermain, Tarzan) or a German "air pirate" having adventures with hyper-technological ships (the dime-novel "Captain Mors" series).
As to what the proliferation of supermen means in terms of literary values, and not just as a literary phenomenon, that must wait for a Part Two.