He Said, He Said

Etulain, Richard - with books McLaird, Jim - bookshelves
Etulain and McLaird Set the Record Straight on Calamity Jane

By Haley Wilson

Open an Internet browser, navigate to a Wikipedia entry on Calamity Jane, and one will read an over-the-top description of an “American frontierswoman and professional scout known for her claim of being an acquaintance of Wild Bill Hickok and fighting Indians.” The article then goes into a harrowing account of Jane’s military experience and romantic affairs with Bill Hickok, along with a noted career as a prostitute.

Sound a bit exaggerated? It should.

Almost everyone in the English-speaking world has heard of Calamity Jane in one form or another, be it a dime novel or a popular television show on HBO. However, as a basic search proves, there is much controversy, confusion, and embellishment when it comes to the Wild West icon Calamity Jane.

Needless to say, the task of writing about the life of such a legendary character in history might seem daunting to anyone, but this year’s Festival of Books will feature a joint presentation from two authors who are verifiable experts on the subject.

James McLaird (Calamity Jane: The Woman and the Legend) and Richard Etulain (Calamity Jane: A Reader’s Guide) will present this year on their findings surrounding Calamity Jane—from separating the fact from the fiction to following the traces of evidence she left behind in order to gain an accurate understanding of Calamity ’s personal life. (As an illiterate woman, she herself left few written clues in her wake.)

Popular Portrayal vs. Reality

Attendees at their joint Festival presentation can expect answers about the Western hero born Martha Jane Canary.

“We’ll deal first with the main events of her life, based on the most thorough research,” says Etulain. “Then, we’ll examine how she has been depicted in popular mediums such as newspaper stories, dime novels and other fiction, biographies, and movies.”

Etulain, Richard - Calamity Readers GuideCalamity Jane, despite popular misconceptions, was not always so calamitous. The image of a woman stomping about Deadwood, guns blazing, dressed to the nines in full cowboy fashion, and challenging men at the local saloon to arm-wrestling contests is just that: an image, a glamourized fantasy. McLaird points out that Calamity only spent a small part of her life in Deadwood, living the rest of her days mostly in Wyoming and Montana.

The icon of a rebel in bootstraps, Etulain adds, is an embellishment as well. While most might think of Calamity donning men’s clothing full-time, the authors agree that she merely sold photos of herself wearing buckskin clothing, all the while putting on the public appearance of being a respectable woman. Calamity in reality was not always the larger-than-life enigma that history makes her out to be.

“She usually dressed like other pioneer women and much wanted to be married, have children, and maintain a stable home,” says Etulain.

While it is not reported in most history books, Calamity Jane did have a family, if an unconventional one. Although rumors abounded that Jane had had a child with Wild Bill Hickok, the truth was much more run-of-the-mill. She instead was once legally married, had a roster of several other non-legal husbands, and had two children.

A Compelling Character

McLaird, James - Calamity Woman, LegendWhat, then, do people find so compelling about Calamity Jane? McLaird explains that perhaps fans are more enamored with the wildly false rumors surrounding Calamity than with the woman herself. For him, the journey of writing about such a character was sparked by a curiosity: what had Calamity Jane done to earn such a reputation?

“Of course, I still find the greatest surprise, after studying her life thoroughly, that she did nothing noteworthy to deserve fame. I wondered how she became so famous if she never did the things ascribed to her. That resulted in the book.”

Writing biographies on one of the most well-known characters in the history of the Wild West was far from easy. Etulain says the greatest challenges he met with were twofold: the lack of verifiable facts from Calamity herself and the fact that many of the early stories about her, drawing on the same hearsay, were well wide of the mark.

Meanwhile, McLaird struggled to wade through the onslaught of falsity enshrouding the legend of Calamity.

“All the promotional material that I have seen made available for tourists in Deadwood continues to provide a wrong birth date, inaccurate information about her relationship to Wild Bill Hickok, and incorrect material about her ‘occupations.’ The Festival seems a good place to discuss why such misconceptions continue to be popular.”

Research & Writing

Festival-goers might also consider taking some pointers from McLaird and Etulain on the process and methods of writing for a living.

Etulain encourages aspiring writers not to become discouraged:

“Keep at your projects; try to write a page a day—if at all possible.” McLaird echoes the necessity of maintaining a solid work ethic and treating writing as a job. “Remember that writing is hard work. Rarely is it a quick and spontaneous process.”

He also stresses the significant amount of time required not only for research, but also for revision.

Though both Etulain and McLaird have written about popular icons of the American West, Calamity Jane doesn’t rank high on their list of historical figures they’d most like to meet. While the two both name Abraham Lincoln as a must-meet, their interests then diverge, from Mahatma Gandhi (McLaird) to Jesus Christ (Etulain).

In September, authors and readers alike will not only have the opportunity to visit the places where Calamity Jane once lived (something Etulain is eagerly anticipating) but also to partake in conversations with writers and readers of all kinds, not to mention some new reading material.

“I always leave with new books I want to read, intrigued by new ideas,” says McLaird.

To get the inside scoop on Martha Canary’s metamorphosis into the legend of Calamity Jane, don’t miss Etulain and McLaird’s presentation at 10 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 26, at the Homestake Adams Research and Cultural Center, 150 Sherman St., Deadwood.

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