Lovely, Lovely Complexities

Jeptha Homer Wade II, Jeptha Homer Wade Jr., and Jeptha Homer Wade I

Photograph Courtesy of Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland Ohio


The complexity of things – the things within things – just seems to be endless.

–Alice Munro

There is a magazine called Real Simple: Life Made Easy (  Perhaps you know it?  This month’s online version offers you items like Step into and out of your home in style with these statement-making mats.  And the answers to questions such as Should You Store Off-Season Items in the Attic of the Basement? “Real Simple” aims to make the complex life of upwardly mobile folk….well simpler.

Growing older I find a simpler life means more time for reading and cogitatin (as Jethro Bodine might say) and so I’ve been cogitatin recently about simplicity, myths, and complexity.

A few weeks ago I finally finished Tony Horwitz’s 2008 book A Voyage Long and Strange: On the Trail of Vikings, Conquistadors, Lost Colonists, and Other Adventurers in Early America. Towards the end of the book, Horwitz asks a minister in Plymouth Mass (and I’m paraphrasing) “Why are the Pilgrims still the focus of North America’s European creation myth when so many Europeans came to this continent before them?”

The answer when it arrives is perhaps unsurprising. (Still paraphrasing…)  Myth is more important than history. History is arbitrary, a collection of facts.  Myth is what we choose, we create, we perpetuate.

Myths are simple; life is complex.  Life is a wonderful web of connections and contradictions; a series of convoluted, tangled, torturous pathways.  We want others to recognize that we are multifaceted even as we search for simple definitions that allow us  compartmentalize and organize the world around us in to simple stories (aka myths).  (ooh…Holly is on a rant)

I am involved in a little myth-busting of my own these days in partial compensation for not being smart enough to recognize when I was complicit in perpetuating myths instead of looking deeper for the truth.  Bad Holly.  Bad Holly.

My myth-busting has to do with with two of the three chaps (the baby is a chap too) in the photograph above.   For generations the Wade Family helped to shape the cultural landscape of Cleveland.  In North America this rags to riches story is available to us in a 1000 individual iterations, but the basic equation is as follows:

  • Opportunity + Industry = Wealth
  • Wealth = Gilded Age Luxury (Travel + Culture + Estates + Clothes + Possessions)
  • Philanthropy + Civic Responsibility = Parks, Art Museums, Historical Societies, Natural History Museums, Cemeteries, Orchestras, and Botanical Gardens.

Here is the Wade myth:  Grandpa (Jeptha I–the chap with the beard) spent ten years as an itinerant portrait painter (before becoming a founder of Western Union) and Grandson (Jeptha II-the chap with the mustachios) inherited a love of art from Grandpa and uses third generation wealth and resources to become a founder of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The Wade myth is not incorrect.  It is simply incomplete.  A tale that is easily encompassed but unsatisfying because it offers card-board characters instead of flesh and blood family relationships.  The Wade story is so much more than a story of a grandfather and grandson. It involves fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, neighbors and friends, spirits and mediums, judges and juries, a Maharajah, a member of the Siamese Royal family, several presidents (one speaking from beyond the grave), and even a Pope.

Busting the myth doesn’t mean destroying the magic, it’s only the beginning.

To be continued…


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