Reading the West: An interview with Richard Etulain, author of “Calamity Jane: A Reader’s Guide”
Richard Etulain, professor emeritus of history at the University of New Mexico, has written or edited more than 50 books and specializes in the history and cultures of the American West. His most recent work has centered on the unique and interesting life of one of the most iconic characters of the American West.
“The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane” — a biography that took him 25 years to research and write – won a Spur Award from Western Writers of America in 2015 for Best Biography and a second Spur for his article about Calamity that was published in Montana, the Magazine of Western History.
His newest book, “Calamity Jane: A Reader’s Guide” came out in the fall of 2015. He recently answered a few questions.
Q: What led you to explore the life of Calamity Jane?
A: I came to Calamity Jane by happenstance. In the early 1990s, I wanted to write a book about a demigod of the Old West for general readers. I soon saw, however, that Custer, Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill and Indian leaders all had strong, recent biographies — but not Calamity Jane. So, I began my work on her about 25 years ago.
Q: What factors led to her status as an icon of the American West?
A: Two factors, I think, did much to elevate Calamity into cult status. One, she stood out in the frontier because her unorthodox actions were so at odds with expectations for pioneer women. And two, male journalists and novelists put her in the headlines of dramatic newspaper stories and the titles of dime novels. From the late 1870s on, she was nationally known.
Q: With such a mythologized character, how do you get to the core research to tell her true story? Or is the myth part of the true story?
A: I approached Calamity Jane with two goals. One, to write a brief biography based on the best sources I could uncover. I visited more than 50 libraries and archives. And two, to trace the legends about her in newspaper stories, dime novels, movies and other popular mediums. I tried to achieve both goals in “The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane.”
Q: How influential were the reporters who traveled and wrote about the West in the mid-19th century in creating icons?
A: Reporters, local, regional and national, played central, shaping roles in bringing persons like Calamity Jane, Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill to the attention of the public. The actions of these demigods were dramatically newsworthy, so journalists captured them in sensational stories. Just as in our times, reporters are often the first, inadequate and sometimes off-track biographers of new men and women on the scene.
Q: What other factors led to their early recognition?
A: The frontier and Wild West was a hot subject in the U.S., in the decades immediately after the Civil War. In that very brief period from 1876 to 1881, news sources were overflowing with gripping stories about Custer, Wild Bill, Crazy Horse, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph, Calamity Jane, Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid. The Wild West offered the hungry public new drama after the Civil War ended.
Q: How did Calamity Jane manage to attach herself to military expeditions such as with Crook and the Newton-Jenney expedition of 1875?
A: Calamity grew up in masculine societies — among farmers, miners, railroaders, bullwhackers and in boomtowns. She seemed more comfortable around men than women, and action and adventure grabbed her. She wanted to be with male contingents like those involved in the Newton-Jenney and Crook expeditions. Sometimes she traveled with bullwhackers who let her, sometimes dressed as a soldier she gained entrance, and sometimes she had a buddy or sweetheart who brought her along. ❖
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I want to address a couple of issues in this week’s editor’s note.