WSJ Historically Speaking: At Age 50, a Time of Second Acts

Amanda Foreman finds comfort in countless examples of the power of reinvention after five decades.

ILLUSTRATION BY TONY RODRIGUEZ

I turned 50 this week, and like many people I experienced a full-blown midlife crisis in the lead-up to the Big Day. The famous F. Scott Fitzgerald quotation, “There are no second acts in American lives,” dominated my thoughts. I wondered now that my first act was over—would my life no longer be about opportunities and instead consist largely of consequences?
Fitzgerald, who left the line among his notes for “The Last Tycoon,” had ample reason for pessimism. He had hoped the novel would lead to his own second act after failing to make it in Hollywood, but he died at 44, broken and disappointed, leaving the book unfinished. Yet the truth about his grim line is more complicated. Several years earlier, Fitzgerald had used it to make an almost opposite point, in the essay “My Lost City”: “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.”
The one comfort we should take from countless examples in history is the power of reinvention. The Victorian poet William Ernest Henley was right when he wrote, “I am the master of my fate/ I am the captain of my soul.”
The point is to seize the moment. The disabled Roman Emperor Claudius, (10 B.C.-A.D. 54) spent most his life being victimized by his awful family. Claudius was 50 when his nephew, Caligula, met his end at the hands of some of his own household security, the Praetorian Guards. The historian Suetonius writes that a soldier discovered Claudius, who had tried to hide, trembling in the palace. The guards decided to make Claudius their puppet emperor. It was a grave miscalculation. Claudius grabbed his chance, shed his bumbling persona and became a forceful and innovative ruler of Rome.

In Russia many centuries later, the general Mikhail Kutuzov was in his 60s when his moment came. In 1805, Czar Alexander I had unfairly blamed Kutuzov for the army’s defeat at the Battle of Austerlitz and relegated him to desk duties. Russian society cruelly treated the general, who looked far from heroic—a character in Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” notes the corpulent Kutuzov’s war scars, especially his “bleached eyeball.” But when the country needed a savior in 1812, Kutuzov, the “has-been,” drove Napoleon and his Grande Armée out of Russia.

Winston Churchill had a similar apotheosis in World War II when he was in his 60s. Until then, his political career had been a catalog of failures, the most famous being the Gallipoli Campaign of 1916 that left Britain and its allies with more than 100,000 casualties.

As for writers and artists, they often find middle age extremely liberating. They cease being afraid to take risks in life. Another Fitzgerald—the Man Booker Prize-winning novelist Penelope—lived on the brink of homelessness, struggling as a tutor and teacher (she later recalled “the stuffy and inky boredom of the classroom”) until she published her first book at 58.

Anna Mary Robertson Moses, better known as Grandma Moses, may be the greatest example of self-reinvention. After many decades of farm life, around age 75 she began a new career, becoming one of America’s best known folk painters.

Perhaps I’ll be inspired to master Greek when I am 80, as some say the Roman statesman Cato the Elder did. But what I’ve learned, while coming to terms with turning 50, is that time spent worrying about “what you might have been” is better passed with friends and family—celebrating the here and now.

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