It was once a cliche that there are no second acts in America. Yet what was already a dubious statement in light of the reality of American history has largely been destroyed by our contemporary generation and its deep fondness for second acts. Instead of there being no second acts in our country, our nation indeed has specialized in second acts to an increasing degree, such that there is little more common in our ages than to see people and especially companies conspiring to provide people with a second act that is entirely predicated on the first act that has passed into insignificance. Today I would like to spend some time talking about what makes second acts possible, and how what was once a somewhat rare but striking historical phenomenon has become a cliche of its own that must be recognized.
To some extent, there have always been second acts in American history . This is not to say that everyone has enjoyed them, but rather that the promise of a second act to reverse one’s present difficulties has always been a part of the American mythos if not necessarily part of the reality for many people. One of my close friends and relatives has pondered over the behavior of her grandfather, wondering what led him to abandon his wife and first family and considerable inherited wealth in order to travel with his second wife to rural California in order to attempt to set up a second period of success through the creation of a town based on logging. His second act was far less successful than his first, but the fact that he sought to make the effort is itself notable and worthwhile. Nor is this story unique. From long before the days of Aaron Burr, the frontier of the United States (and before then, the various English colonies that hugged the Atlantic coast of North America) provided a chance for people to seek a fresh start in their life, weather voluntarily or by forced transportation as criminal indentured servants in lieu of execution for any number of minor crimes and offenses that nonetheless carried the death penalty.
In such an environment, a great many people had lengthy careers full of dramatic changes in fortune. A poor orphan boy nearly killed as a result of his bumptious hostility to British soldiers and imprisonment could set up shop as a lawyer and militia officer in a frontier territory and through immense talent and ambition make a name for himself as a military genius and eventually a political leader of the highest importance, despite his lack of learning and social graces. Many of the effective second acts of American history during its early period came about thanks to the military. Leaders like Grant, Sherman, Lee, and Forrest, among others, found their own importance to history greatly helped through their military successes in the Civil War. Around half a dozen presidents of the late 19th century, including Grant, Hayes, Garfield, and McKinley, were officers of the Union during the American Civil War, sometimes conspicuous valiant. Nor are they the only American leaders who found military success a prelude to immense political success–witness such leaders like Washington, Andrew Jackson (mentioned already above), William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, the aforementioned Union veterans, Theodore Roosevelt, and Eisenhower, all had their reputations made or significantly burnished by heroism in warfare. Even unsuccessful candidates for our nation’s highest office, like Winfield Scott or the late Sen. McCain, would have been inconceivable as candidates for such office without a firm military reputation.
Nowadays, though, it is not the military that furnishes the best and most obvious examples of second acts in contemporary culture, but rather areas of cultural fame. Once someone has attained a high enough degree of popularity in any field, it is a relatively straightforward matter for them to obtain some sort of reality television show success or popularity. Sometimes, as is the case with the Cash Me Outside girl, the Braxton family, or Brandy and her brother Ray J, the initial success was in music, which led to reality television popularity. At other times one can gain notoriety in one reality television show only to be invited to future ones, where we see a flamboyant losing contestant of the Bachelor becoming a contestant on a related show in future seasons before being invited to Dancing With The Stars. One of the more interesting examples of this is a somewhat obscure writer (reviews forthcoming) who parlayed this success into some notable efforts at achieving fame as a YouTube music critic, efforts that I enjoy and support.
In all of these cases, though, there are various cultural aspects that make second acts particularly easy, even trivial, of a task at present, although it has always been true that not everyone can enjoy a second act. For one, second acts have always been easy if someone can parlay success in one endeavor into another. It is somewhat easy for successful stars of one kind to use that success in order to bankroll a second career, such that famous athletes (Shaq, OJ Simpson) can become notable actors and musicians after their careers are done. Athletes in one sport can be cheered on in another (Michael Jordan, Tim Tebow), and so on. Once someone has achieved a reputation for success in some field, any field, they have an advantage in being free to pursue other endeavors where they may receive additional notoriety, even if they are not critically praised in their secondary fields (think of Madonna’s acting and directing career, for example). It is only when someone’s reputation has become toxic, especially as a result of having committed a blunder or offense of such manner that threatens one’s ability to have any sort of public reputation, that one loses the chance to have a second act without some drastic change either in reputation in the eye of the public or through the passage of enough time that the horror of one’s behavior has vanished into oblivion. Contrary to the cliche, second acts in America are not uncommon at all, if you know how to succeed well enough in the first act that at least some people are willing to underwrite or support a second act.
 See, for example: