A recent Washington Post article on the statuary of the capital city inadvertently destroyed one of my most cherished illusions. As a child growing up in this area in the early 1960s, I was repeatedly told by other persons that a special meaning, known only to initiates (a group that always included my informant), was hidden in the design of many of the statues in downtown Washington. The statues that depicted a military hero astride his horse with all four of the horse's legs on the ground indicated that the general had survived the war; alas, that he was killed in action. This solemn pronouncement aroused in me some reverence, a little fear, and the very pleasant feeling that comes with finding out a well-kept secret.
Unfortunately, as The Post article ["Statuesque and Otherwise," March 19, B1] pointed out, the "secret" was not true. The story quoted Challes atherton, the executive secretary of the city's fine arts commission, to the effect that, contrary to popular belief, the position of the horses' forelegs has no symbolic meaning whatever. This debunking forced me to reclassify the notion from a fond belief to a myth, a commonly-believed myth, but a myth all the same.
As a myth, however, the story of the horses' legs is in good company. There are a surprising number of common beliefs - many purporting to explain some unusual event or situation - that sound very plausible, but that can be shown with a little research to have no basis in truth. Take the well-known story of the origin of the name of the E.J.Korvette discount chain. Almost as many times as I heard as a child about the horses' legs. I was told more recently in tones of great revelation that "E.J.Korvette" is not a person's name but a coded abbreviation for "Eight Jewish Korean War Veterans," the supposed founders of the chain. I found this quite plausible, in view of Korvette's emergence in the post-Korean War era and the prevalence of Jewish entrepreneurs in the retailing industry. And besides, as the teller of the tale always retorted to any doubters, who ever heard of Mr. Korvette?
This story, sadly, is a myth as well. A fortune magazine article of November 1956, describing "the Spectacular Rise of E.J.Korvette," blandly tells the unexciting truth behind the founding of the chain and the meaning of its name. E.J.Korvette was not founded by eight Jewish Korean war veterans, or by one Korean war veteran for that matter. It was founded in 1948, years before the korean war, by one jewish World War II veteran named Eugene Ferkauf. It is true that that there was and is no Mr. Korvette, but Mr. Ferkauf was quoted by Fortune saying that the name was chosen more or less arbitrarily.
In a similar vein, it is often stated that there is no J Street in Washington, between I Street and K street, for a reason shrouded in history. When Pierre L'Enfant laid out the capital city in the 1790s, the story goes, he delibertely slighted John Jay, the first chief justice of the Supreme Court, by deleting his name from the map. The origin of the feud is not stated. Unlike the first two examples, this story was has not been proved false; but there appears to be no solid evidence supporting it and there probably never will be. Other mythic statements are more contemporary. Playboy magazine has repeatedly declared that the small five pointed stars that decorate its cover do not communicate the degree or extent of the carnal connection between the magazine's publisher and the current month's Playmate; they are nothing more than circulation codes for the magazine's various regional editions.
What these popular myths have in common is that each reflects an attempt to impose order upon a seemingly random phenomenon. The human mind naturally rejects arbitrariness and seeks logical explanations for the inexplicable. A letter of the alphabet is unaccountably missing from a sequence; a retail store has an offbeat name; some bronze horses kick their feet while others don't. In each case, the mythic solution is the neat one. But life is less ordered, more random than that. Our myths, even in seemingly trivial areas, mirror the deep-seated patterns of our thought.