The Last Tycoon (F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1941)
So I finally decided to read the Great Unfinished American Novel because I wanted to identify the full context of its most famous line (i.e., “There are no second acts in American lives.”)**
It turns out the full context is what five minutes of research on the internet says it is:
It’s a line from the “notes”–a rough outline edited by Edmund Wilson after Fitzgerald’s untimely demise and included in standard editions of the novel ever since.
Which means it is a line that:
May or may not have actually ended up in the finished novel.
May or may not have been something Fitzgerald believed himself at the moment he wrote it.
May or may not have been something he would have continued to believe upon further reflection.
May or may not have been something he would have come to disbelieve upon further reflection.
May or may not have been something one of his characters believed and would have continued to believe.
May or may not have been something one of his characters believed and would have come to disbelieve.
May or may not have been something one of his characters was going to say to another character and then actually said (with or without believing it).
May or may not have been something one of his characters was going to say, with or without believing, to either the reader or another character, and then thought better of.
May or may not have represented any of several dozen other easily imaginable permutations–any or all of which may or may not have passed through Fitzgerald’s mind before he died; any one of which may or may not have been accepted or rejected while he lived (there’s no way of knowing); and any one of which may or may not have continued to be accepted or rejected had he lived long enough to complete the novel (as there’s also no way of knowing).
So how has the line gotten to be so famous?
By being used this way:
“F. Scott Fitzgerald was all wet when he claimed that ‘there are no second acts in American lives.'” (Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal, March 1, 2012)
There’s no need to pick on Teachout (no need the pick on him even though the specifically American life he is claiming a second act for here is that of the exceptionally British Charles Laughton–that stuff happens on deadline). I’m just using him as an example because his standard abuse of the quote happens to be the one I read most recently. It followed on what I’ll very conservatively estimate as dozens of similar abuses I’ve encountered in various forms of book-chat for the last thirty years or so.
The sad part about all the attention this stray quote has gotten and the ever-comforting degrees of intellectual laziness and smugness it has continually inspired for generations now, is that it serves to distract from a very real achievement–namely Fitzgerald’s early, perhaps original, identification of the sort of man (Monroe Stahr) who has increasingly come to dominate the modern world.
Of course, Fitzgerald being Fitzgerald, he was bound to romanticize his discovery. Wherever you find them nowadays: running Hollywood, Langley, Wall Street, the happening war (real or imagined) of any given moment, the national committees of the major political parties, Silicon Valley (God knows), whatever passes for quality control at CNN or FOX, they’re routinely exposed as the pungent, dichotomous blend of predatory sphincter-holes and major league suck-ups they always were.
So you won’t find Monroe Stahr–the acquisitive, obsessive-compulsive multi-tasker who is just beginning to reveal the soul of a poet when the finished part of the novel ends and whom those notes, which give no context whatever to second acts in American lives, clearly indicate was going to become an even greater figure of romance before it was all over–anywhere near the real world of today anymore than you would have the world of nineteen-thirties Hollywood.
Still, fiction isn’t fact and he was a potentially great fictional character. And certainly Fitzgerald’s observational powers and remarkable skill with language were sufficient to the task of providing at least a strong outline of the real characters who have come further and further into the light since.
It’s a crying shame he didn’t get to finish.
Had he done so, there’s every chance he would have left us with a lie even more beautiful and useful than Gatsby.
And we would be able to fairly judge whether or not he really–in any way, shape or form–was so far lost he thought American lives had no second acts.
As it stands, the blame for his famous quote’s ready abuse should be made to lie where it belongs–with the abusers.
A Bridge Too Far (Cornelius Ryan, 1974)
This is a rare feat of both journalistic skill and dedicated research. It’s second chronologically, though third published, in Ryan’s massive trilogy of the Western Front from D-Day to the fall of Berlin.
There are those who have placed Ryan at the forefront of New Journalism and I can’t argue, except to note that his topic was too great to be bounded by even such a considerable achievement.
In the story of the last major Allied defeat of World War II, he made available, for anyone who wants to access it in taught, lucid prose, one grim reminder after another of the terrible costs war extracts; why war–all war–is finally about victory and defeat; and why victory and defeat are always and forever measured by taking the ground and holding the ground.
And lest we think today’s headlines–drawn from wars where victory and defeat have never been anything but a matter of contemptuous indifference to the entire stratum of political and military leadership (and most of the populace)–passing strange:
As Brace bandaged the man, he was aware of a strange hooting sound behind him. Turning he saw a totally naked paratrooper, pumping his arms up and down and “sounding like a locomotive.” As Brace caught his eye, the soldier began to curse. “Blast this fireman,” the trooper said, “he never was any good.” In one house near the perimeter Brace, arriving with a casualty, heard a man softly singing “The White Cliffs of Dover.” Thinking the trooper was soothing the other injured, Brace smiled at him and nodded encouragement. The soldier lunged at Brace and tried to choke him. “I’ll kill you,” he yelled. “What do you know about Dover?” Brace loosened the fingers at his throat. “It’s all right,” he said gently, “I’ve been there.” The man stepped back. “Oh,” he said, “that’s all right then.” Minutes later he began to sing again. Others remember a shell-shocked trooper who walked among them at night. Bending over the huddled forms of men trying to sleep he would shake them roughly awake, stare into their eyes and ask them all the same question: “Have you got faith?”
**NOTE: I’ve since discovered that Fitzgerald used the line in a 1932 essay and in a context which buries the logic of his abusers even deeper. I am not surprised.