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.
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.