The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane, by Richard W. Etulain, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2014, $24.95
Let it be said—as does author Richard Etulain—that the definitive biography of this wild woman of the West is James D. McLaird’s 2005 book Calamity Jane: The Woman and the Legend (University of Oklahoma Press). Before McLaird produced that title and his 2008 work Wild Bill Hickok & Calamity Jane: Deadwood Legends, most of us found it nigh impossible to separate fact from fiction in the life of Martha “Calamity Jane” Canary. Misinformation kept circulating year after year for a number of reasons—scattered and minuscule records; Calamity’s own highly suspect autobiography; sensationalized tales of her exploits by dime novelists and muckrakers; shallow or faulty research by journalists and other nonfiction writers; the many false trails blazed by Jean Hickok McCormick, who claimed to be the illegitimate daughter of Calamity and Wild Bill; portrayals of Calamity on film by the likes of Jean Arthur (The Plainsman, 1936), Doris Day (Calamity Jane, 1953) and Robin Weigert (HBO’s Deadwood series, 2004–06); and the power of legend-making in general. And then came McLaird’s extensive biography. “Published more than a century after her death, McLaird’s thorough, measured and thoughtful book is, by far, the most important publication on Calamity,” writes Etulain. “It is a tour de force of diligent, far-reaching scholarship.”
McLaird was equally generous toward Etulain in the acknowledgments of his Calamity biography: “Dick’s enthusiasm for the subject is contagious. Besides sharing information and sources, Dick meticulously combed through a draft, providing detailed suggestions to improve style and content. I cannot thank him enough.” Well, that was a decade ago. And though Etulain covers much of the same ground (a dependable account of Martha Canary’s life and a solid overview of the Calamity Jane legends), he delivers the story with such enthusiasm and careful detail that anyone who read the earlier biography will still enjoy this one. There is also the matter of all those folks who failed to notice or grasp the truths about Calamity that McLaird provided. “Not all writers in the next decade or so benefited as much from his volume as they should have,” writes Etulain, who of course did, but he has also studied Calamity Jane off and on for two decades.
Given the continuous exaggerations, distortions and blatant lies about her life before and after her 1903 death, and the fact she could neither read nor write, Calamity is no easy subject. When one gets past (if one can) all of that, another question emerges: Do this illiterate woman’s actual accomplishments even warrant a full-fledged biography? Although definitely an unorthodox woman, she didn’t scout for the Army as much as she said she did (and certainly not for George Custer), and she wasn’t the only female in the West to ever get drunk (though she did it more thoroughly than most), engage in prostitution (actually, no irrefutable evidence in her case), have several “husbands” (none named Hickok, in her case), struggle to care for a child (in her case daughter Jessie) and administer to the sick. In other words, it’s easy to argue she wasn’t biography-worthy. Then again, do the likes of Hickok, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday really deserve as much attention as they’ve received, while so many other accomplished lawmen, gamblers and dentists have been forgotten? Few Wild Westerners have become legends of the West, and very few of these few are women, so let’s not hold Calamity Jane’s dubious fame against her.
It is also clear that such a biography requires more than just a biographical section if it is to be long enough for a book. Etulain delivers by thoughtfully commenting on the early, often misleading, accounts of her life and devoting his last four chapters to the novels, movies and biographies about Calamity. He also draws an interesting comparison between Calamity and another Western woman to achieve legendary status, Belle Starr (Myra Belle Shirley), although he might have fleshed out that comparison a bit more—perhaps in another book? There are no footnotes (in adherence to the guidelines of the Oklahoma Western Biographies series), but the author provides an “Essay on Sources” and an extensive bibliography. McLaird might have made it clear to some of us 10 years ago, but Etulain makes it doubly clear—Calamity Jane was a far more complex character than legend has it.
Originally published in the June 2015 issue of Wild West.