Second Acts: Agree with F. Scott Fitzgerald? Inmates in The Wire?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Second Acts in American Life
At left, convicted drug dealer D'Angelo Barksdale talks with other prison inmates in a book-discussion group about Fitzgerald's claim about second chances. This scene in the second season of the highly praised series The Wire is bittersweet because it comes shortly before Barksdale's untimely death.

At left, convicted drug dealer D’Angelo Barksdale talks with other prison inmates in a book-discussion group about Fitzgerald’s novel. This scene comes mid-way through the second season of the highly praised HBO series The Wire. The discussion about Fitzgerald and second chances is bittersweet because it comes shortly before Barksdale’s past tragically catches up with him in prison.

From Dr. Wayne Baker: Welcome back guest columnist Terry Gallagher. Thanks to all the readers who read—and shared with friends—Terry’s series last week on “Losing My Religion”. Here is Terry’s first column in a new series on “Second Acts in American Life” …

“There aRE no second acts in American lives,” according to F. Scott Fitzgerald in one of the most quoted lines in the whole of American literature.

No matter what Fitzgerald might have actually meant by the line (we’ll get to that by Friday), it’s often recited to mean that America is unforgiving, dog eat dog, make one mistake and you’re off the rails for good.

We know that isn’t true—certainly not in our political life. Bill Clinton had more than one chance. Lincoln became president after failing to win a Senate seat from Illinois. And the unfortunately named Anthony Weiner was leading the polls in New York City mayor’s race until his second act ended as the first one did.

But it really is true in some other ways, isn’t it? In one sign of the sentence’s enduring power, the great HBO drama, The Wire, shows a group of inmates working their way through Fitzgerald in a prison book club.

“He’s saying that the past is always with us,” according to drug dealer D’Angelo Barksdale. “Where we come from, what we go through, how we go through it—all that . . . . matters. . . . You can say you’re somebody new. You can give yourself a whole new story. But what came first is who you really are, and what happened before is what really happened.”

So which is it?

Do we get a second act?

Or is what came first who you really are?

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(Originally published at, an online magazine covering spirituality, religion, interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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  1. David Thompson says

    It all depends upon why you need a second act! What happened? There are unredeemable people. Sociopaths, those with other mental & emotional disorders such as anxiety disorders like hoarders who repeat despite many efforts to help them. Convicted Felons have a tough way to go in our society; they aren’t trusted for many years, if ever. Drug and alcohol addicts often have repeated relapses. In some of these cases, if the person is tough minded, they can and do survive into a second act. The majority do not make it and reoffend (such a Weiner.) It is difficult to say why some do but a majority do not. A lot has to do with an extremely understanding support system around an individual. Millions of Alcoholics have cleaned up with A.A., yet the majority don’t. The guys on the wire could do this for each other but will they be released near each other or around the same time? unlikely. Very tough to KEEP a second act after you get one!

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