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Do Americans Get Second Chances?

Published: September 19, 2009

The Post can’t let September pass by without noting the birthday (September 24th) of one of its greatest contributors. F. Scott Fitzgerald published 69 of his short stories in our magazine between 1920 and 1937. He was the defining voice of the Jazz-Age generation—probably, as some have argued, because he invented it. Americans read his stories avidly, savoring their technical brilliance and looking for explanations for the brash, frantic young adults who were so unlike their parents.

He had an undeniable talent for storytelling, as well as skill in composing aphorisms. For example: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

But Fitzgerald’s work was rooted in doomed romance and thwarted ideals, which sometimes emerged in cynical expressions:

“I’m a romantic; a sentimental person thinks things will last, a romantic person hopes against hope that they won’t.”

“After all, life hasn’t much to offer except youth, and I suppose for older people, the love of youth in others.”

“Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.”

It was in this spirit that Fitzgerald wrote one of his most frequently quoted lines: “There are no second acts in American lives.”

It is a lone sentence, without context, found among the pages for a novel he never finished. Yet journalists often quote it when writing about failure. The phrase has been widely interpreted to mean that America gives no second chances. The value of the statement rests on its being written by Fitzgerald, who is presumably something of an authority on lost opportunities.

"The Swimmers" by F. Scott Fitzgerald, October 19, 1929.

"The Swimmers" by F. Scott Fitzgerald, October 19, 1929.

Did Fitzgerald Believe It?
Like many generalizations, it sounds more true than it, in fact, is. Generations of immigrants, for example, would argue the point. America was the great second act that spared millions of Europeans—the poor, unskilled, disadvantaged, and disgraced—from lives of obscurity and frustration.

Perhaps Fitzgerald meant Americans granted only one chance at success. If so, he was ignoring the comebacks of bankrupt author Mark Twain, failed Congressman Abraham Lincoln, and paralyzed ex-Assistant Navy Secretary Franklin Roosevelt. He was also disregarding the numerous new acts in the lives of Benjamin Franklin or Frederick Douglass.

Whatever faith Fitzgerald put into that sentence, it wasn’t shared by his contemporary, William Faulkner (born September 25, a year and a day after Fitzgerald). Faulkner was also a frequent contributor to the Post, which published 22 of his short stories between 1930 and 1967.

Faulkner was no romantic. In fact, he continually wrote of how romantic sentiments had crippled the South. His stories, which were almost all based in his native Mississippi, chronicled the South’s stubborn resistance to modern life and the damage done by hopes of resurrecting the past. His work earned him the Nobel Prize for literature in 1949.

He is perhaps less popular among American readers. His writing can be dense and convoluted. But he wrote about things that truly mattered, and were universal, not just Southern.

The Struggle That Lies Beyond Opportunity
In Faulkner’s Nobel acceptance speech, he looked far beyond second chances and missed opportunities, which limited a writer’s vision.

“The young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

“[The writer] must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed—love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice …

“I believe that man will not merely endure: He will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.”

After these noble thoughts from Faulkner, we should let Fitzgerald make the case for second acts in American lives. He does so in his short story, “The Swimmers.” In its conclusion, he writes of an American sailing for Europe:

“Watching the fading city, the fading shore, from the desk of the Majestic, he had a sense of overwhelming gratitude and of gladness that America was there, that under the ugly debris of industry the rich land still pushed up, incorrigibly lavish and fertile, and that in the heart of the leaderless people the old generosities and devotions fought on, breaking out sometimes in fanaticism and excess, but indomitable and undefeated. There was a lost generation in the saddle at the moment, but it seemed to him that the men coming on, the men of the war, were better; and all his old feeling that America was a bizarre accident, a sort of historical sport, had gone forever. The best of America was the best of the world …

“France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter—it was the graves at Shiloh and the tired, drawn, nervous faces of its great men, and country boys dying in the Argonne for a phrase that was empty before their bodies withered. It was a willingness of the heart.”

FAULKNER  (1897-1962)
“Thrift,” Sep 6, 1930
“Red Leaves,” Oct 25, 1930
“Lizards in Jamshyd’s Courtyard,” Feb 27, 1932
“Turn About,” Mar 5, 1932
“A Mountain Victory,” Dec 3, 1932
“A Bear Hunt,” Feb 10, 1934
“Ambuscade,” Sep 29, 1934
“Retreat,” Oct 13, 1934
“Raid,” Nov 3, 1934
“The Unvanquished,” Nov 14, 1936
“Vendee,” Dec 5, 1936
“Hand Upon the Waters,” Nov 4, 1939
“Tomorrow,” Nov 23, 1940
“The Tall Man,” May 31, 1941
“Two Soldiers,” Mar 28, 1942
“The Bear,” May 9, 1942
“Shingles for the Lord,” Feb 13, 1943
“Race at Morning,” Mar 5, 1955
“The Waifs,” May 4, 1957
“Hell Creek Crossing,” Mar 31, 1962
“Mr. Acarius,” Oct 9, 1965
“The Wishing Tree,” Apr 8, 1967

FITZGERALD stories and articles (1896-1940)
“Head and Shoulders,” Feb 21, 1920
“Myra Meets His Family,” Mar 20, 1920
“The Camel’s Back,” Apr 24, 1920
“Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” May 1, 1920
“The Ice Palace,” May 22, 1920
“The Offshore Pirate,” May 29, 1920
“The Popular Girl,” Feb 11, Feb 18, 1922
“Gretchen’s Forty Winks,” Mar 15, 1924
“How to Live on $36,000 a Year,” Apr 5, 1924
“The Third Casket,” May 31, 1924
“The Unspeakable Egg,” Jul 12, 1924
“John Jackson’s Arcady,” Jul 26, 1924
“How to Live on Practically Nothing a Year,” Sep 20, 1924
“Love in the Night,” Mar 14, 1925
“A Penny Spent,” Oct 10, 1925
“Presumption,” Jan 9, 1926
“The Adolescent Marriage,” Mar 6, 1926
“Jacob’s Ladder,” Aug 20, 1927
“The Love Boat,” Oct 8, 1927
“A Short Trip Home,” Dec 17, 1927
“Bowl,” Jan 21, 1928
“Magnetism,” Mar 3, 1928
“The Scandal Detectives,” Apr 28, 1928
“A Night of the Fair,” Jul 21, 1928
“The Freshest Boy,” Jul 28, 1928
“He Thinks He Is Wonderful,” Sep 29, 1928
“The Captured Shadow,” Dec 29, 1928
“The Perfect Life,” Jan 5, 1929
“The Last of the Belles,” Mar 2, 1929
“Forging Ahead,” Mar 30, 1929
“Basil and Cleopatra,” Apr 27, 1929
“The Rough Crossing,” Jun 8, 1929
“Majesty,” Jul 13, 1929
“At Your Age,” Aug 17, 1929
“The Swimmers,” Oct 19, 1929
“Two Wrongs,” Jan 18, 1930
“First Blood,” Apr 5, 1930
“A Millionaire’s Girl,” May 17, 1930
“A Nice Quiet Place,” May 31, 1930
“The Bridal Party,” Aug 9, 1930
“A Woman With a Past,” Sep 6, 1930
“Our Trip Abroad,” Oct 11, 1930
“A Snobbish Story,” Nov 29, 1930
“The Hotel Child,” Jan 31, 1931
“Babylon Revisited,” Feb 21, 1931
“Indecision,” May 16, 1931
“A New Leaf,” Jul 4, 1931
“Emotional Bankruptcy,”  Aug 15, 1931
“Between Three and Four,” Sep 5, 1931
“A Change of Class,” Sep 26, 1931
“A Freeze-Out,” Dec 19, 1931
“Diagnosis,” Feb 20, 1932
“Flight and Pursuit May,” 14, 1932
“Family in the Wind,” Jun 4, 1932
“The Rubber Check,” Aug 6, 1932
“What a Handsome Pair!” Aug 27, 1932
“One Interne,” Nov 5, 1932
“One Hundred False Starts,” Mar 4, 1933
“On Schedule,” Mar 18, 1933
“More than Just a House,” Jun 24, 1933
“I Got Shoes,” Sep 23, 1933
“The Family Bus,” Nov 4, 1933
“No Flowers,” Jul 21, 1934
“New Types,” Sep 22, 1934
“Her Last Case,” Nov 3, 1934
“Zone of Accident,” Jul 13, 1935
“Too Cute For Words,” Apr 18, 1936
“Inside the House,” Jun 13, 1936
“Trouble,” Mar 6, 1937

Click here to read “The Swimmers” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.”

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