Calamity Jane

Calamity: The Many Lives of Calamity Jane by Karen R. Jones, Yale University Press, 304 pages, $28

Beyond the photographs and her real name — Martha Jane Canary — how can we come to see the actual person behind the character of Calamity Jane? The author of this engaging book doesn’t romanticize the likely truth: “Rough-edged and roving, she was a woman caught up in a West that left her hamstrung by poverty, addiction, and limited choices.” So how did Canary, who was born around 1856 and moved with her parents across the Great Plains to seek opportunity, go about reinventing herself?

Karen R. Jones zeroes in on the core truths by analyzing the many portrayals of Calamity Jane in a wealth of sources: dime novels, film, radio, TV, comic books, biographies, masters theses, doctoral dissertations, opinionated accounts, scholarly narratives, and journal articles. The final result is a convincing look at how Calamity Jane became one of the established personifications of the West, and how that personification has repeatedly changed to fit the spirit of the age that perceives her.

There were, of course, other figures that also worked at building a mythology of the West, even as the West itself was morphing into a less wild, more industrialized and structured future. For instance, the genteel Annie Oakley, who joined Buffalo Bill Cody’s troupe in 1885, manifested “a sense of feminine charm and domestic sensibility” and was celebrated as “the girl of the western plains.” Jones is interested in the femininity of Oakley versus the wilder Calamity. “After the curtain went down, show attendees could find [Oakley] in a tent, surrounded by needlework and baked goods, a world away from Canary’s publicly displayed frontier masculinity,” she writes.

Jones concludes that “Oakley’s brand of frontier celebrity was a lot less subversive than Calamity Jane’s,” but that both women, along with freak show performers, music-hall mashers and the like, “patrolled the boundaries of gender possibility.”

Written accounts (including Canary’s own, set out in the mostly fictional 1896 Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane, by Herself), competed to present the “real Calamity Jane” as an exemplar of the genuine frontier. Jones doesn’t dodge the biographical contradictions she finds about a figure who, depending on the teller, was described as a 19th-century folk hero, an amoral quirky drifter, a buckskin-clad celebrity, a scout, an Indian fighter/U.S. mail carrier extraordinaire, or a glossy Doris Day type, tunefully “taming the plains.” Others say she was an unconventional butch lesbian feminist icon who personified female empowerment. Jones does a compelling job of describing the different manifestations. She convincingly explains how, when, and why such wide-ranging versions of Calamity Jane emerged and offers insights about who this unorthodox woman actually was and why.

Just the facts: There are a few absolute, known attributes of Calamity Jane, Jones writes. She was enterprising, brave, rowdy, and a celebrity in her time. She dressed like a man, drank in saloons, could swear pretty well, and shot at things. But even though she married and had a child, for most of her life she could not accept being ladylike — so she went about disrupting feminine standards in the Old West. That’s how she persisted in an era and culture where she did not fit in.

As Jones demonstrates, during her lifetime Calamity Jane went from a talked-about local character to someone known throughout the region and the nation. Canary died on Aug. 1, 1903, at the Calloway Hotel in Terry, South Dakota, and the response to her death ranged widely. In Montana, the Livingston Post reported Canary’s passing this way, according to Jones: “Famous Female Scout is Put to Rout by Clammy Hand of Death; she lived a stormy life.” The Bozeman Avant Courier, a 10-page, four-column weekly, offered the longest obituary in the local press, under this headline: “Calamity Jane, The Wild West’s Wildest Product, Dead.” Jones’ recounting of the diverse manners and voices in which Canary’s demise was portrayed, depending on the region doing the reporting, is amusing and eye-opening. This section alone is pretty much worth reading the book.

Peopled with memorable characters, from Wild Bill Hickok to Oakley to Buffalo Bill Cody, and packed with colorful looks at wide-ranging national opinions, Jones’ study concludes that the truly heroic figure in a rugged, complex American West was perhaps not the gun-totin’ Calamity Jane. The truly heroic figure was the woman who found little relatable in the social mores and restrictive femininity of her time, and who chose to build a more exciting (and somewhat more lucrative) life. Her name was Martha Jane Canary.

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