Second Acts: Are we caught between past and present?

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Second Acts in American Life
Photograph of a workman on the framework of the Empire State Building as it was rising. Photo taken in 1930 by Lewis Hine, released now into public domain.

Photograph of a workman on the framework of the Empire State Building as it was rising. The Chrysler Building already is below and behind him. Photo taken in 1930 by Lewis Hine, released now into public domain.

From Dr. Wayne Baker: Welcome columnist Terry Gallagher …

What did F. Scott Fitzgerald really mean when he wrote “There are no second acts in American lives”? Did he mean that no one gets a second chance, or is the line meant to be read as a type of theater criticism, that Americans are so impatient to cut to the chase that we miss out on character development.

Maybe there’s another way to look at it.

The sentence was found in the notes Fitzgerald left for the unfinished work, The Last Tycoon, published not long after his death in 1940.

“But it actually dates back earlier, to about 1932, where it’s used in a very different way, and I think that way is probably more in line with Fitzgerald’s thinking throughout his life,” scholar and author Kirk Curnutt said in an interview on NPR in May.

Fitzgerald said the same thing in an essay called My Lost City, something of a love letter to New York City, written in the 1930s. “The line he says here is: I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives, but there was certainly going to be a second act to New York’s boom days,” according to Curnutt. “Clearly he’s sort of saying, well, I once believed this but I’ve been proved wrong.”

And that’s the way we should read the sentence, according to Curnutt: “That we are always caught between the past and the present, and we carry the burdens of both.”

What do you think?

Can we shake the burdens of the past?

Even if we go on to a brighter future?

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

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