This post is basically a big nothingburger -- just something I was thinking about and decided to write up. It concerns famous or characteristic statements by well-known fiction writers which may be clever but simply are not true.
"There are no second acts in American lives." - F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald was a very fine writer, and The Great Gatsby is one of the essential American novels. But his famous pontification about American lives couldn't be more wrong. American society is all about second acts. How many Americans do you know who have changed careers in midlife, or gone back to college, or remarried, or moved across country or even overseas?
In many ways Ronald Reagan's life story is quintessentially American. He started off as a radio sportscaster, then took a chance and went to Hollywood, becoming a successful movie actor (not a B-movie actor, as sometimes claimed; he made A pictures). Later he made the transition to television and became the national spokesman for GE. As he traveled the country he grew more and more interested in politics, eventually winning the office of governor of California and, later, president of the US. As president, he survived an assassination attempt, after which he developed a deep religious faith.
No second act? Reagan's life had a third, fourth, and fifth act!
Reagan may have been unusually protean, but Americans in general are constantly reinventing themselves, as is America itself. Strange that Fitzgerald, an otherwise acute observer, could miss such an obvious fact.
"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." - Leo Tolstoy.
This famous opening sentence to Anna Karenina packs a lot of punch, and without a doubt the novel itself is one of the high water marks of world literature. But if you think about it, Tolstoy's seemingly profound observation makes little sense. How are happy families all alike? The truth is that families often find very different ways of being happy. In fact, there is at least as much variety among happy families as there is among the unhappy ones.
One might even maintain that unhappy families tend to be more alike, since the things that typically drive families apart (infidelity, drug and alcohol addiction, emotional and physical abuse) fall into a pretty restricted range.
"Happiness is possible only to a rational man, the man who desires nothing but rational goals, seeks nothing but rational values and finds his joy in nothing but rational actions." - Ayn Rand.
This key quote from John Galt's epic speech in Atlas Shrugged sums up a great deal of Rand's philosophy, and it is certainly powerful rhetoric. But is it true? Hardly. First, it is impossible to determine exactly what constitute "rational goals." Reason is crucial in developing strategies to achieve a given goal, but it can't tell us what goals to seek in the first place. Reason is about means, not ends. (Rand's attempt to solve the is-ought problem at the root of this distinction was a failure.) Moreover, it is psychologically impossible to be "rational" -- in the narrow, limited sense in which Rand uses the term -- all the time. Even if this state of mind were desirable (which I doubt), it is not achievable, because human beings are not purely creatures of reason; we are motivated in part by instinct, emotion, sentiment, and neurotic hopes and fears, not to mention the apprehension of transcendent truths that don't translate readily into "rational" argument.
If Rand's statement were true, then no one would ever have been happy in the whole history of the world, including Rand herself, who had more than her share of irrationalities. Among other things, she had phobias about germs and air travel; she became addicted to diet pills containing amphetamines; she was neurotically afraid of investing her money in anything riskier than a low-interest savings account; she had an explosively violent and unpredictable temper; she irreparably damaged her marriage by pursuing a younger man who was not in love with her; and she alienated most of her close friends and supporters by treating them badly. She was, in short, human -- all too human.
So what's my overall point? I don't have much of one; this is a nothingburger post, remember? But I guess I would say that facility with words and plots and fictional characters does not necessarily translate into truthful observations about human nature. Sometimes it does (Shakespeare and Mark Twain were keen observers) and sometimes it doesn't.
Or in shorter terms: caveat lector (reader beware)!