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Fitzgerald Might Disagree With His 'No Second Acts' Line


You've likely seen or heard a news story in recent years that began something like this: F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, there are no second acts in American lives. But Fitzgerald clearly never met - fill in the blank.

It seems a whole generation of American politicians has fallen from grace only to rise again and disprove the line: Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Eliot Spitzer. And just last night, South Carolina's newest congressman, Mark Sanford.

Here's the catch: many Fitzgerald scholars and enthusiasts cringe when they hear this kind of thing, because they say it's getting the line wrong.

To explain, we're joined by Kirk Curnutt, vice president of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society. Welcome to the program.

KIRK CURNUTT: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: So I understand the line actually appears in two different works by Fitzgerald?

CURNUTT: Yes, ma'am. It shows up in the unfinished novel that was posthumously published called "The Last Tycoon" in 1941, where it's just that line sort of dashed off in the middle of a bunch of working notes. 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.

CORNISH: Which is? What was the main thinking there?

CURNUTT: Well, it shows up in an essay called "My Lost City," which is a beautiful sort of testament to New York and was actually very popular in the aftermath of 9/11. The line he says here is: I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives, but there was certainly to be a second act to New York's boom days.

Clearly he's sort of saying, well, I once believed this but I've been proved wrong. And I think that's what really gets most of us who are Fitzgerald fans is that line is always quoted as saying, well, how naive was Fitzgerald to have said there are no second acts in American lives, when he himself was only a couple of years away from what many people consider the greatest second act in American literary history.

CORNISH: What do you think that Fitzgerald would have made of these political characters that we've been talking about? It's become such a kind of cliche of American politics, in particular.

CURNUTT: Sure. Well, I think they would have said that's exactly how he intended that line, sort of ironically. It's interesting because "My Lost City," the essay in which the line first shows up, really does address this in some way - not necessarily in the political context. But it does say that we are always caught between the past and the present, and we carry the burdens of both.

And for all that these politicians do find new successes in life, they are always remembered for their past failures. And no matter what the future bodes for Mark Sanford, we'll always remember him for what happened three or four years ago.

CORNISH: One other thing. I mentioned in the introduction that, you know, people cringe when they hear this sort of thing. But do you? I mean, as someone who obviously, you know, is a scholar of Fitzgerald, what's your reaction when you hear that line thrown around?

CURNUTT: Well, I have to be very honest. Of all the beautiful lines that I adore that F. Scott Fitzgerald ever wrote, this is the one I really hate. I wince when I hear it, partly because it's used as a way of saying how sort of naive and shortsighted he was. But also, because for those of us who really adore Fitzgerald, the problem with that is we don't like our man to be cynical.

Fitzgerald was an optimist. For all that he went through in life and for sort of how low he was at the end of his life, he really did - like Jay Gatsby - believe in the green light. And he was trying to be optimistic to the core. I think he thought that "The Last Tycoon" would be his second act, that it would reinvent him if he could finish it.

It's a very different book than "The Great Gatsby." I'm not convinced it would have been better than. But it would have been a new and different and mature Fitzgerald. And I think that's part of the reason that we object to it, is it just seems like it's so out of context.

CORNISH: That's Kirk Curnutt, vice president of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

CURNUTT: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.