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?

Please, add a comment below, and …

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

Second Acts: Comeback kids are … few and far between

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Second Acts in American Life
Occupy Wall Street protester photographed by David Shankbone, who released the photo for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

Occupy Wall Street protester photographed by David Shankbone, who released the photo for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

From Dr. Wayne Baker: Welcome back columnist Terry Gallagher …

Fitzgerald’s line, “There are no second acts in American life,” is one of the lazy journalist’s best-loved cliches, a useful straw man to be knocked down every day in all sorts of media.

The line opens thousands of stories about athletes coming back from injury, politicians recovering from rejection, companies re-emerging from bankruptcy.

Whenever you see it, you know that the next line will say how wrong Fitzgerald was, that America is the land of the comeback, that opportunities abound no matter how many times you’ve been knocked down. Just pick yourself up and dust yourself off and start all over again.

Since America is the land of second acts, it leads many to believe that, “those who fail to get ahead suffer a defect of will, a lack of persistence, verve, or some other personal shortcoming,” Wayne Baker has written in one of his posts here about American core values. “In an individualistic, achievement-oriented society, those who win and those who lose get all the credit for the outcome.”

But the numbers prove that isn’t true.

Thanks to widening income inequality, persistent intergenerational poverty and deepening economic segregation, the data are clear: Poor people likely had poor parents and their children are almost guaranteed to be poor, too.

For millions of Americans, it’s a cruel joke to suggest that their second act would be any different from the first one.

What do you think?

Please, add your thoughts in a comment, below.

And, share this column with friends! Please, start a conversation with your friends by clicking on the blue-”f” Facebook icons connected to this story. Or email this story to a friend using the small envelope-shaped icons.

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

Second Acts: Was Fitzgerald decrying American shortcuts?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Second Acts in American Life

F Scott Fitzgerald photo from early 1920sFrom Dr. Baker: Welcome back columnist Terry Gallagher …

WE may be missing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s real message when he wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives.” Maybe he wasn’t saying that we can never recover from early failures.

To get what Fitzgerald was driving at, you have to read “second acts” as a reference to the middle part of a play.

In a 2010 column in The Atlantic, writer Hampton Stevens pointed out that Fitzgerald wrote for the theater at Princeton and later Broadway (and Hollywood). “With ‘no second acts,’ he was almost certainly referring to a traditional, three-act drama, in which Act I establishes the major conflict, Act II introduces complications, and Act III is for the climax and resolution.”

Fitzgerald may have been saying that, as Americans, we grasp for premature resolutions, impatient with complications along the way. During the second act, the protagonist is unable to resolve the complications because they don’t have the right tools yet. Our lead character must grapple against the odds—often paying a big price along the way. But Americans? Usually, we just want a shortcut.

Of course, Fitzgerald left us with a puzzle when he died prematurely at age 44 in late 1940. He was only about half finished with his final novel, The Last Tycoon. His friend Edmund Wilson assembled enough of the book so that an edition could be published in 1941. To accomplish this, Wilson searched through hundreds of pages of notes and, in the final published pages, simply listed some one-liners from those notes. That’s where the famous line appears: “There are no second acts in American lives.” Then, right after that, Wilson placed this line from Fitzgerald’s notes: “Tragedy of these men was that nothing in their lives had really bitten deep at all.”

Maybe Fitzgerald was saying we’d be better off if we took a little time for character development, for figuring out who we are, before we race to the finish line. That explanation seems to make a lot more sense than the more common interpretation of the line.

But what do you think?

Please, add a comment below, and …

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

 

 

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.)

Second Acts: How World War II kick-started American literature

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Second Acts in American Life

Great Gatsby WWII cover of Armed Services Edition F Scott FitzgeraldFrom Dr. Baker: Today, Terry Gallagher concludes his series on “Second Acts in American Lives” …

Well, look who’s back on top of the best-seller list! Boosted by the release of the 3-D film version starring Leonardo DiCaprio, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby hit No. 1 on Amazon’s best sellers list for a week in May.

Hard to believe now, but the book wasn’t a best seller when it was published in 1925. As Fitzgerald’s editor at Scribner’s, the legendary Max Perkins, wired him: SALES SITUATION DOUBTFUL EXCELLENT REVIEWS.

It didn’t get much better. In 1929, Fitzgerald’s records showed royalties of $5.10 from the American edition of The Great Gatsby and $0.34 from the English edition. In 1940, the royalties were a very unlucky $13.13.

So what happened to make the book one of the most popular and enduring in all of American literature?

In large part, it was because of World War II. During the war, American publishers worked with the military to provide books to soldiers as a way to boost morale. The Great Gatsby was one of the 1,322 titles included in this global distribution campaign. As a result, 155,000 copies of Gatsby were distributed between 1942 and 1946, far surpassing the 25,000 copies Scribner’s printed from 1925 to 1942, thousands of which were never sold.

How successful was the program overall? The books were “as popular as pin-up girls,” one soldier told the Saturday Evening Post.

Many scholars believe that was the impetus that made the book a popular success.

Nowadays, Scribner’s sells about half-million copies every year, both in print and e-books, and the rights generate about $500,000 per year for Fitzgerald’s heirs.

How’s that for a second act?

And, share this column with friends! Please, start a conversation with your friends by clicking on the blue-”f” Facebook icons connected to this story. Or email this story to a friend using the small envelope-shaped icons.

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