There is a famous adage often ascribed to F. Scott Fitzgerald: "There are no second acts in American Life." These words are in the air these days because Trent Lott, the former Senate majority leader who left his post in disgrace after making remarks that were interpreted to be racist, has returned to the Republican leadership. "There are second acts in American life," says George Will on the tube this morning. "That's the most untrue truism ever" says David Brooks on another show, becoming quite exercised. Of course, Brooks is right. Google the term and you find that practically all the hits are debunking the saying rather than quoting it affirmatively.
How did we come to adopt an adage we so thoroughly disbelieve? Where does the stickiness factor for this saying come from, to borrow Malcolm Gladwell's term? We cite these words not as a truism but as a horror story: nothing scares an American more than the possibility that self-invention is impossible. To disprove such an idea is infinitely comforting.