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.