Friday, April 27, 2007

"You were not a woods-colt, Janey"

After a couple of intensive reading/writing weekends, I’ve completed an 87-page first draft of my “thesis” on the books and films surrounding the legend of “Calamity Jane.” The initial response from my advisor was positive. But as for me, however much I’ve done, I know it wasn’t enough. I did not read every damn thing there was; there is always more. I barely skimmed the surface, drilling down in a few areas, like the various attitudes in 20th-century depictions of Calamity as mother. The possibility of Calamity Jane being a birth-mother who gave up her baby for adoption first came to the surface in 1941 when a woman named Jean (Hickok) McCormick claimed to be Calamity’s daughter by Wild Bill Hickok. On a Mother’s Day radio program, Ms. McCormick read for an eager public from a diary and letters that she said her “mother” left for her. The content of McCormick’s material gave new energy to the Calamity Jane myth. Such films as Jane Alexander’s 1984 TV movie, “Calamity Jane,” and Larry McMurtry’s 1990 novel, “Buffalo Girls,” were based on these letters. Many people believed that Martha Canary (“Calamity Jane”) wrote them, though she was thought to be illiterate, and presumably dictated her autobiographic-ish “Life and Adventures” pamphlet that was sold at dime museums in the 1890s. If one were to make an irresponsibly general division, it would turn out that male scholars do not believe Calamity wrote these letters, and female scholars and writers do. We women want this renegade to be more like us; to have experienced not only the hardships and wildness of frontier life, but the womanly pain of unrequited devotion and nobly motivated maternal sacrifice. The diary and letters give her a new voice, even though it might be the voice of Jean McCormick, the wanna-be who at least got a government pension out of the deal (because the documents were allowed to serve as proof of her birth date, not necessarily her lineage). Most interesting to me (at one point in my scholastic frenzy) was the seeming absence from contemporary academic “discourse” of an anthropology Ph.D., a woman named Leslie A. Furlong, whose 1991 dissertation on Calamity Jane’s social/symbolic role in the Wild West was fascinating reading. A footnote in this 500-page tome, near the end, asserts Furlong’s belief that Martha “Calamity Jane” Canary was the author of the McCormick diary and letters. Being the suspicious person I am, I can’t help but wonder if Furlong’s admission of this belief somehow cost her an opportunity because it was considered a fantasy (by some male committee member), and her imagination too active for the tenure track. Or maybe she just had kids and kep’ ‘em, and said to heck with academic stardom. She did turn up on the 'net as an adjunct instructor in Virginia, but she hasn’t yet answered my e-mail! And the mystery continues. But this weekend I'll put my magnifying glass down and try to have some fun.


elronjesus said...

After reading your info on Calamity Jane I can suddenly see the burgeoning relevence to Women Studies. I think I get what you're doing now. She seems to be a sort of representative marker on the road to modern feminism. She is an actual historic figure but also a mirror to modern constucts along this line and even debated as to the meaning of her role. Interesting.

I just finished William Styron's "Confessions of Nat Turner." He's an historic figure often used liberally in black studies as the progenitor to emancipation, although this is questionable, partly because he may have been genuinely insane. Styron was trashed by black studies in the late 60s for fictionalizing a version unappealing to black women especially. The trouble is, little is know of Turner's life, other than the details of the slave rebellion he started.

Anonymous said...

By looking at the photo, it's clear that CJ was a lesbian; yet you don't even mention that. I doubt she had a baby for this reason.

It is indeed a "Calamity" that such abnormalities exist, but at least she made a name for herself. No offspring, but a name.

Marylyn said...

How is it clear that she was a lesbian? Wearing men's clothing has nothing to do with it. Many women in the "Wild West" wore men's clothing and performed typically male work. Even in the 1600s, women went to work or war disguised as men -- some for higher wages, others for adventure, others because they wanted to BE with men. There is no historical evidence that CJ was a lesbian, and she did, in fact, have several lengthy relationships with men in her life. Probably rather stormy ones, though. Why are such "abnormalities" a calamity anyway? Variety is the spice of life. We can't all be normal, and in fact, NO ONE IS. Normal/average are concepts, not realities.

Anonymous said...

You can just "tell" she was a lezbo. She "looks" like one; not just the clothes, but the face.

It's a calamity because they are gross. Not pretty to look at most of the time.