Go West, young man: the first commandment of American dogma, and the last. Lewis and Clark heeded it in 1804, Kerouac and Cassidy in 1947. On foot or horse or motorcycle, in steamboat or convertible, we the people, as a people, chase the setting sun. Though the West has long been won (its native inhabitants slaughtered, that is, its environments decimated), though territories have become states and states become tamed, though Dakota and Montana and Wyoming are mere places now, not promised lands, we still look west, in need and in hope. Today, more than 20 percent of the country’s homeless live in California.
Go West. A holy word, a god’s mandate, cause of jihad and crusade. The Wild West—a time and place always elevated by that epithet—is the closest our young country has to myth. Sure, we’re raised to worship the Revolution’s heroes—strong Washington, wise Jefferson, Revere and his fleet-footed steed—but they are, like the Titans of ancient Greece, not nearly as appealing as the rambunctious, roughshod generations that followed. Lewis and Clark serve as twin gods of exploration and cartography, of the path found and the map made. Crockett is our Apollo, Custer our Ares, Annie Oakley a sure-shot Artemis. Bill Cody, like Dionysus, knew the value of revelry in making both money and reputations. He knew the value of legend in a world sorely lacking thereof.
The Wild West’s greatest legend, the cowboy, stands alone in this mythic vision of white America: god of the plains, god of the pool hall. The profession’s become a password, hinting at solitude, muscle, a certain rough-and-tumble-ness, a constant wink beneath a hat brim. Theodore Roosevelt campaigned on the strength of that myth, turning the word—as he did his own name—into a shortcut for something inherently or perhaps just wishfully American, relentlessly independent—whatever that may mean. Teddy may have been the last president to carry real cowboy credentials, but he wasn’t the last to claim them. Children still play cowboys and Indians, and their parents still daydream of horses and vistas, of charges and campfires and stories and song.
Throughout human history, myths have emerged as ways to explain the world. In a world explained, however, in a world discovered and governed and tamped down, myths become ways to enliven it.
Martha Canary knew a thing or two about enlivening. The autobiography she dictated is colorful and riddled with lies, and interviews with her bear the same tall-tale stamp: exaggeration to the point of falsehood. “If you put yourself in the stories people like them better,” explains her highly fictionalized counterpart in Larry McMurtry’s novel Buffalo Girls. Martha was highly fictionalized herself, of course. “The persistence of legendary tales has little to do with historical accuracy,” admits biographer James D. McLaird, and a legendary tale was what Martha meant to be. Without Athena’s wisdom or Aphrodite’s beauty, without Oakley’s skill or Custer’s service, she still bragged and charmed and dogged her way into the pantheon of the Wild West. So firmly did her mythic stature swat away the pesky fly of historical fact that Martha Canary is known far better by the name of the legend she became. “Calamity Jane” heads her gravestone; her real name, like her bones, lies below.
This is where I found her: in Deadwood, South Dakota, buried on a hill beside Wild Bill Hickok. I had left Bozeman that morning, would sleep in Rapid City that night. Calamity’s grave was the day’s destination, the point of my pilgrimage in the summer of 2010.
I have been trying, recently, to remember why. What drew me to her then, before the full flourishing of my obsession with the West? My best theory is this: she was an original American tomboy, an archetype I’d aspired to as a child. I’d read the way the Greek gods fought—constantly, and in broad swathes—so that my mother confiscating my latest favorite book was the severest punishment she had at hand. And all the best heroines—Pippi, Anne, Harriet—had carried at least a touch of the tomboy about them. I’d wanted to join their ranks.
Calamity was not a reader, was likely illiterate. But she understood the reader’s desire to live inside the story, to make a story of oneself. When I visited Calamity’s grave, I had not yet read McLaird and McMurtry; I had not yet seen Deadwood. I did not know her as I know her now, the Calamity of myth complicated—diminished, inevitably—by history. But I knew the desire to spin out one’s life like a good yarn, to fill it with moments worth telling and telling again. I was twenty-two, freshly graduated and purposeless, but I knew that longing—for meaning, for myth—as intimately as if I’d spent a lifetime studying its texts and deciphering its codes. (In a way, I had: I’d read.) I was in love with the idea of Calamity, of telling a story with such force and stubbornness it has no choice but to buckle, give in, be true.
She was born in 1852. She was born in 1847. She was born in Iowa, in Utah, in Wyoming. Her last name was Dalton. Her last name was Coombs. She was raised by soldiers, raised by Indians, raised in tremendous wealth. She was a preacher’s daughter—this cliché of today’s country songs already going strong in the nineteenth century. She scouted for Crook in Wyoming. She scouted for Custer in Arizona, warning him of what waited at Little Big Horn and carrying back news of that battle.
She was a soldier and a bullwhacker and a spy. She was a female Robin Hood, robbing grocery stores to feed sick miners. She was a frontier Florence Nightingale, singlehandedly nursing Deadwood through smallpox. She fought off a mountain lion, rescued a stagecoach, and founded Pierre. She rode for the Pony Express from Deadwood to Custer, the most dangerous route in the Black Hills. Indians thought she was crazy, so they left her alone. Indians thought she was protected by the Great Spirit.
She met Wild Bill Hickok in Laramie, or Abilene. They traveled together for months, or years. They were engaged when he died. They had married in secret. Calamity loved him all her life, but that love was unrequited. When she heard of his murder, she cornered the killer Jack McCall in a butcher shop and threatened him with a meat cleaver until authorities arrived. He was found not guilty in Deadwood, so she followed him to Yankton. She took the case before a grand jury. She had him indicted and saw him hanged.
She was an unparalleled beauty. She looked like a man. She married George Cosgrove, George Baker, Charlie Utter, Robert Dorsett, Frank King. She killed forty Indians and seventeen white men. She killed countless husbands. She was a highwaywoman, a gangster, and a horse thief. She was a prospector and a rancher. She could whip a fly off a horse’s ear, could riddle a tossed can with holes before it hit the ground. She could out-shoot, out-ride, out-smoke, out-chew, out-drink, and out-cuss any man in the West.
Calamity authored some of the lies above, but not all: she had plenty of help. As early as the 1840s, P. T. Barnum included Wild West exhibits in his museum, recognizing the frontier’s potential for marketing. Later traveling exhibitions followed suit, turning the battles and adventures of the West into performances: the Great Rocky Mountain Show, the Pan-American Exposition, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. (Calamity appeared in the first two, each time briefly, before the former went bankrupt and the latter wore her out.) The demand for and reach of such shows—Buffalo Bill’s toured Europe—was remarkable, considering the events they depicted had occurred, in some cases, less than a decade earlier.
Telling tales about the Wild West (the wild now ubiquitous) became a national pastime. In the second half of the century, shockingly popular dime novels pitched romantic visions of gunslingers, lawmen, road agents, and Indians to a massive, national audience. Authors often took the names and a few attributes of famous Westerners for their characters, whose actions were fictionalized or baldly fictional. In 1877’s Deadwood Dick, The Prince of the Road, dime novelist Edward L. Wheeler gave his titular hero a sidekick and love interest named Calamity Jane; newspapers and oral accounts, her own included, had already begun to mythologize Calamity, but this publication was her first appearance as a full-blown character. Martha Canary was twenty-one.
The Calamity Jane of Wheeler’s stories checks off several boxes associated with the real Calamity: she smokes, drinks, swears, rides, shoots, and dresses like a man. (Calamity did don men’s clothing—and sat for official portraits in full buckskin get-up—but she wore dresses just as often in daily life, as more casual photographs attest.) However, the character has as much in common with the eponymous heroine of Hurricane Nell, the Girl Dead-Shot, also published by Wheeler in 1877. The wild western woman was an archetype already employed by word peddlers, and Calamity happened to suit that archetype, with the added bonus of being real.
The Deadwood Dick series didn’t contribute events to the growing myth of Calamity Jane—readers understood the books were fictional—but it did contribute legitimacy to Calamity’s own stories, and those told about her by neighbors and newspapers. She was a dime-novel heroine, after all! Surely she’d done something to warrant it. Thus a lovely ouroboros began, in which Calamity appeared in books because she was famous, and was famous because she appeared in books.
I buy it. Consider how hungry a people can be—for meaning, for myth—and what a feast the idea of Calamity offers. Remember that the country had recently been ripped apart by the Civil War and that a story—a good yarn—might be able to knit place and people back together. The Civil War had (bloodily, brutally) forced many white Americans to learn what citizens of other races already knew—that America was not and had never been all it claimed to be, that the country’s founding vision of life and liberty remained just that: a vision, unachieved. In the wake of such revelation, no wonder large parts of a grieving populace turned to the stories, real and not, pouring forth from the West—the America they’d believed in still lingered in those stories, in those far-off places. America, as they’d dreamed it, was still believed in by those characters.
Besides, anecdote is often easier to absorb than fact, and more inspiring; sometimes we want such ease and inspiration. In his 2005 biography, Calamity Jane, McLaird points out that the legendary Calamity (and the real one, I’d argue, if to a lesser extent) “embodied traits deemed important by Americans, including independence, charity, courage, cleverness, sincerity, physical strength, resourcefulness, and self-reliance.” Perhaps she is our Hermes, god of trickery and theft, of travel and transitions—nineteenth-century America was rife with such colors. Calamity, our Muse. Calamity, our Fate.
I visited Calamity’s grave as part of a month-long road trip, from southern California up the coast to Vancouver and then across to Boston. I know, I know: I went the wrong way. What can I say? I already went West, young man. A friend kept me company as far as Seattle, but I drove alone after that. In Vancouver and Calgary, I stayed with distant relatives, connections my mother had kept up and called on my behalf. I am bad at family, bad at keeping up for keeping up’s sake, bad at remembering the many branches of the family tree my mother knows—effortlessly and with genuine care. But I’m interested in genes, in the character traits we inherit. Nature and nurture, to this non-scientist, are just different types of narrative.
A few months before the drive, I sat in a class on abnormal psychology and took notes on behavior genetics and concordance rates. I wrote a paper on John Berryman’s The Dream Songs, manic depression, and alcoholism. Fancy the brain from hell / held out so long. Let go. I did not write about my fear of these diseases, their genetic wreckage, or being drawn to them nonetheless. Disease offers narrative, and narrative becomes myth. I was twenty-one, then, and wanted sturdy, plot-worthy reasons for my drinking, for my moods. I wanted the backstory to end and the adventure to start.
I’m lying—perhaps I’m learning from Calamity. Or not lying, exactly: the words above are honest, but they omit. Their past tense neglects the present. I still want that story, even now, writing this. I offer up Calamity like a sacrifice, a stand-in for my soul in this deal with the devil. Give me a myth I can believe in. I equate my small desires with hers, which filled a continent; I create my own version of her, when too many already exist. The real Martha Canary is hidden by a hundred funhouse imitations, stretched and distorted to suit needs other than her own.
She was most likely born in 1856. Orphaned by age twelve, she may have begun lying about her birthdate to preserve her independence, but she continued to do so into adulthood. She maintained the lie in the autobiography she dictated in 1896. She was extremely poor, and would remain so. As a child, she traveled with her family from Missouri to Montana, probably on the Oregon Trail. After her parents’ deaths, she ventured to Wyoming, arriving alongside the Union Pacific Railroad. She followed railroad expansions regularly throughout her life, a witness to the slither of the Union Pacific through Montana and into Idaho, of the Chicago and Northwestern through Nebraska and Wyoming. She rarely stayed in one place for long.
Railroad expansions, as well as gold rushes and military movements, created one pop-up settlement after another in a steady cycle of boom and bust across the West. These short-lived population bursts provided opportunities for both excitement and employment, Calamity’s greatest needs. She was a camp follower on various trips, including a scientific expedition to the Black Hills in 1875 (her first visit to the region) and Crook’s military expedition in 1876, where she claimed to have been a scout. She was likely a girlfriend of one soldier or another, or a prostitute, as well as a cook, laundress, nurse, and troublemaker.
However banal her role in such excursions, she was memorable. An 1876 mining claim bore the name “Calamity Bar,” and a nearby mountain was dubbed “Calamity Peak.” A newspaperman with the 1875 expedition was the first to call her “Calamity Jane” in print, reporting that she had been “all over the frontier, and on several dangerous scouts.” The claim of scouting is false, but the reporter gets her propensity for “yielding to drink” right, all right. He concludes, “Who says women cannot endure hardships equal to a man?”
Calamity would go on to endure hardships caused by poverty, alcoholism, and resultant poor health. She would also continue to work intermittently as a prostitute, cook, and laundress, as well as dance-hall girl and saloon proprietor. She would drive a buggy drunkenly for ninety miles, overshooting her intended destination by eighty-seven. She would join Bill Hickok and Charlie Utter’s wagon train from Cheyenne to Deadwood as a camp follower in 1876, befriend Hickok, and grieve him fiercely, two months later, when he died.
In 1888, she married Bill Steers, with whom she had a violent, intermittent relationship, but no word of him survives thereafter. She married Clinton Burke in the early 1890s but claimed they had married in ’85, probably to make her daughter, born in 1887, appear legitimate. That daughter, Jessie Oakes, later set out to learn about her “grandmother,” Calamity Jane. Calamity, it seems, had invented parents more reputable than herself for the girl.
However disreputable she was, Calamity did care for numerous sick and injured people throughout her life. When she died of alcohol-related illness in 1903, hundreds attended her funeral.
These are the facts, or as close as we can come to them from the distance of more than a century. But why let anyone else’s telling—even history’s—diminish Calamity’s tale? In a place and time when braggadocio conquered as many miles as cavalry, I believe the legend is as important as the person. McMurtry’s fictionalized Buffalo Bill muses on the old-timers he’s recruited to accompany his exhibition:
It sometimes seemed to him that he was the only one in the whole troupe who could see the greatness of the pageant they were part of: the Pages of Passing History, they called it in the show . . . and yet, no one seemed to realize it except himself and maybe poor Calamity. . . . Calamity and he knew what they all should have known: that the story of the west was a great story. You had a wilderness won, red race against white race, nature red in tooth and claw, death to the loser, glory to the victor: what could ever make a nobler show? It seemed to him that it was finer than Dickens, and Calamity—who hadn’t read Dickens—thought so too.
Buffalo Bill—the real one, that is—knew a story didn’t exist without a teller, someone who recognized its merit and its thrill. Odysseus needed Homer, the gods needed Ovid. In the dirt-scratch world of the Wild West, we can hardly spare scriptwriters from the cast of actors. Let Calamity—like Bill Cody, Doc Carver, and others—pull double duty.
As McMurtry’s Dora DuFran says, however, “Her stories and her story were mainly based on whiskey and emptiness.” This plain statement breaks my heart. The modern discussion of women “having it all” turns me cold for many reasons, not least because I do want it all: not a job and a man and a home, but many jobs, many men, many homes. Many lives. That’s why I stood on a hill in the middle of the country, trying to spread my life out like the plains below and scout the paths through it.
Driving is a way of putting off decisions, and Calamity traveled constantly. She too wanted it all: the whole of the West, the whole of her world, and I want her to have it. She knew her lies made better stories than the truth—as a lover of stories, how can I help but love Calamity? She bragged about scouting for Custer to men who had scouted for Custer. You can keep your Wild Bills, your Sitting Bulls, your Billy the Kids. Calamity had the biggest balls in the West.
Or so the story goes, at least.
Early in his biography, McLaird makes an important distinction between “Martha Canary, pioneer woman, and Calamity Jane, legendary heroine.” Martha Canary was an impoverished orphan, her name of so little use that Calamity, or her scribe, spells it wrong (“Cannary”) in her autobiography. On the other hand, an 1892 newspaper declares, “For the last ten years no name has been more familiar to Americans than that of Calamity Jane.”
Even this familiar name sprang from lies. In the autobiography, Calamity claims she was dubbed during an 1873 skirmish with Indians. A captain, Egan, was shot and reeling from his horse when Calamity rode back, pulled him onto her own mount, and brought him safely to Fort Sanders: “Capt. Egan on recovering, laughingly said: ‘I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains.’ ” In other accounts, she saves other men, who declare her good to have around “in a time of calamity.” During an outbreak of fever, she tends to the ill and is declared “our angel in calamity.” Her nickname is due to her “calamitous beginnings,” or her constant misfortune, or the number of dead paramours left in her wake. Or because, when she loses at poker, she cries out, “What a calamity!”
In fact, “Calamity Jane” was a nickname bestowed on a number of women across the West. All were prostitutes, alcoholics, and prone to causing the kind of uproar that earns comparisons to natural disasters. The most likely source of Calamity’s sobriquet was not heroism but notoriety. Still, I like to think that she named herself—how many can claim such a distinction?—and so I call her by her chosen form of address here. Even if the name was given by a disgruntled neighbor or overworked bartender, she altered its origin story. After all, everything else about her was self-made. Everything could be molded to serve the myth. Throughout her life, Calamity would also claim the last names of “husbands,” various men she accompanied but did not marry, as a way of legitimizing her relationships. She had made a name for herself, and she kept on making it, any way she wanted.
Of all the tales told by and about Calamity, perhaps the unlikeliest is the true one: her success. If you know her, you know her by the name she chose. Her bones lie beside Wild Bill’s; her story is linked to his in every book—even if skeptically, even if refuted. She’s been played in movies by Jean Arthur, Jane Russell, and Doris Day, has graced many novels. Children’s books about the “real” Calamity abound. When I mention her, friends recognize the famous name, if nothing more. What did she do, again? they ask. Not much, I reply. Not much. But she told a story and it became the story. She told a story, and we believed it.
Calamity is buried in Mt. Moriah Cemetery, a place named for the mountain where Abraham strapped down Isaac and raised the knife. I read recently that an old meaning of bless is to redden—as in bloodshed, as in sacrifice. When I visited Calamity’s grave, the sun was setting somewhere behind me, hidden by the Black Hills, blessing the tops of the trees with its coppery gleam. Lilac bushes were in bloom, and I inhaled the sweet, overpowering scent. I thought of ancient pilgrims who traveled to the site of religious relics because they believed breathing the air around a saint’s bones could be curative. The point of pilgrimage has always been prayer and health, both physical and spiritual salvation.
Better pilgrims than I had left gifts at her grave: pennies and nickels and flowers, along with a nip of Jack Daniels and a tube of lipstick. Lipstick imitates a blessing, reddening the mouth with the illusion of desire. Every blush is such a prayer: that wanting, we might be wanted in return. Booze, too, blesses the body, bringing blood to the skin, ruddy and flushed. I had been so dyed, too many times, the body’s heat rising to light my face: all my want made visible. When Calamity died, some estimated her age as great as seventy-three, because her face was so wracked with drink and sickness. She was forty-seven. Her body was displayed in Deadwood for three days before burial, and a guard had to be posted to keep onlookers from clipping locks of her hair.
In every tale about Calamity—real or false, life or legend—one trait is consistent: the woman was a drunk. She probably hadn’t the talent she claimed for riding or shooting, but she had a penchant for booze, the common tongue of the West. She was fluent in it, immersed since her early teens. She was a tomboy, remember, and I imagine drinking was one way for her to get in and keep up with the men, one way to earn a role in the grand pageant going on around her—from which her sex might otherwise exclude her. Drinking was a way to take part in the story.
Drinking also makes that story, any story, better. Pour a little on the page and watch the plot improve: more daring, more dramatic, more fun. Calamity wanted nothing so much as fun. She was a born exaggerator, and liquor must have helped to loosen her tongue, making the tales she told taller and funnier, and her audience more likely to believe them. How supportive a sidekick a bottle can be.
Drinking is also a story in itself, of course. Drinking—and I’m talking about alcoholism, now, though this apt word doesn’t appear in contemporary accounts of Calamity—offers all the promise of narrative. Highs and lows, benders and rock bottom, exultation and violence and regret: of such stuff plot is made. I know the psychology, the genetic predispositions and reward pathways, but still . . . sometimes I can’t help thinking the powerful grip of alcoholism might come down to narrative.
The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous knew this. AA’s Twelve Steps offer the structure of an outline, ready and waiting for a writer to detail. The hero is a tragic figure, fallen and downtrodden; the narrative is a classic redemption tale. Many meetings are “speaker meetings,” where members tell anecdotes from their past. Admitting your faults and making amends for them is a central tenet of AA, the organization itself less a state of membership than a process of retelling—and, in doing so, re-membering, putting yourself back together, body and soul.
I remember folding chairs stacked on hand trucks, movable mountains of dulled bronze. Silver vats of coffee and stacks, again, of Styrofoam cups. Order, offering the simple comfort of control. I remember cookies, grocery-store knock-offs of Oreos or flaky, rectangular wafers in chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry: the best part of the event. I must have had a book to read, or paper and crayons to color with, but I can’t remember what I read, what I drew. I remember the fluorescent lights and tiled floors of a hall or church basement, and rows of heads between where I sat in the back, reading or drawing, and where each speaker stood in turn. I’m sure I sat on one of those folding chairs, pulled down and set upright, but I have this strange feeling that I sat atop the whole stack of them, a shy princess on a scuffed throne. (I realize this feeling is a trick of memory, is a result of me, now, looking down on the scene from a distance of decades.) I don’t remember how old I was—four or five or six, maybe—but I remember these details of space and structure from the AA meetings I attended during those years, on the days of each week I spent with my dad.
On Mother’s Day in 1941, a woman named Jean McCormick went on CBS’s radio show “We the People” and introduced a version of Calamity to overshadow all others. This Calamity had married Wild Bill, borne his child in secret, and given that daughter—McCormick—up for adoption. McCormick provided a diary, letters, and a marriage certificate as proof of her illustrious parentage. All were forged, and badly.
It’s hard to parse the facts of McCormick’s own life from the elaborate fictions she constructed around it, about her childhood and marriages and work. I have it in mind that she was an orphan, like Calamity, like a hundred protagonists of children’s stories. Orphaning a character makes the author’s job easier: the kid’s halfway to being a hero already, and without parents to interfere in the ensuing adventures.
But nature, as they say, abhors a vacuum; a space absented demands to be filled. The pseudonymous dime novelist Reckless Ralph also took Calamity for a character, authoring a story in which the young woman is raised by a desperado, Mountain Jim, whose deathbed confession reveals he is not her father; hidden papers will explain her mysterious origins. (The real and really orphaned Calamity was the daughter of a farmer, too dull for a dime novel.) The similarity of Ralph’s story to McCormick’s is uncanny but explicable: it is not so strange, to make our parents—dead or living, absent or present—more than they are. We tell stories about them, though we are the only audience; we are the sole acolyte to elaborate myths.
McCormick has supporters, despite the overwhelming evidence refuting her assertions: not a single sentence written by the likely-illiterate Calamity exists, let alone a letter; none of the adventures proudly recounted by Calamity in the memoir she did dictate appear anywhere in the diary; dates and places are inconsistent (with each other and with established facts) from one entry to the next. But from Vivien Skinner of 1941’s “We the People” episode to 1959 biographer Glenn Clairmonte (Calamity Was the Name for Jane) to Stella Foote, author of a 1995 self-published biography, A History of Calamity Jane, Our Nation’s First Liberated Woman, believers remain. They claim the author of the letters is too compelling to be fake, too alive on the page—which only means, of course, that the forger was a decent writer. Besides, Calamity can be easily altered to suit our purposes. Countless and contradicting tales of her exploits were widely circulated during her life; after her death, her character was transformed to fit books, films, and a 1997 television series, The Legend of Calamity Jane. A 1901 interviewer was disappointed to learn that Calamity’s exploits in the dime novels he had read were entirely fictional; in 1995, McLaird had to disabuse a would-be documentary producer of several “facts” about Calamity’s life gleaned from McMurtry’s Buffalo Girls. When Calamity visited Helena in 1896, a reporter guessed many would be surprised to meet her, believing “Calamity Jane never existed, except in the imagination.”
We are easily duped, perhaps, but perhaps we want to be. Perhaps we want to believe in something so badly we can dupe ourselves, if we are poor and eager and lonely enough, as I believe McCormick was. We can convince ourselves that our parents were star-crossed lovers, hero and heroine, king and queen of the American West—that half the world conspired to bring about our birth and half fought against it, tooth-and-nail venomous with resentment.
Who has the right to Calamity’s story? So many versions exist that the singular noun feels wishful. Calamity told many of them herself, of course, so does that fact grant us permission? Would the proliferation and range of her legend make her angry, or make her laugh? Those who believe Jean McCormick are right about one thing: the author of the diary and letters feels real, as do the fictionalized Calamitys found in McMurtry’s novel, HBO’s Deadwood, and any number of other renderings. “She was any kind of person one wants to call her,” allowed one of Calamity’s contemporaries, and his observation has only grown more acute. McMurtry, in his novel’s acknowledgments section, thanks “the shades” of Calamity “and a few others whose stories outgrew their lives.” The real Calamity has been overshadowed by these oversized stories, which claim legitimacy by virtue of their largesse.
I resent McCormick’s claim on Calamity, the clumsiness of her forgery as much as the fact of it. I want her Calamity to be possible, though not proven. Teaching herself to read, scribbling letters in secret, missing her murdered lover and the daughter she had to abandon—the Calamity in the letters is compelling, as McCormick’s supporters claim. “Remember Janey,” reads one letter, referring to the girl’s legendary father, Hickok, “his name will never die as long as the sun shines.” A daughter’s favorite myth, writ large—I can’t help wishing it true, for anyone desperate enough to need it. So I want the mystery of the letters unsolved; I want more Calamity, not less—want enough to go around.
For years, I felt a kinship with Calamity—my Calamity, I should say, the one I imagined. But I know now I am of McCormick’s stock; I understand her want. When our own stories disappoint—and don’t they, nearly always?—we fall back on that family tree, on the small myths written in our genes. How many ancient Greeks, raised on tales of gods and mortals consorting, must have secretly believed their absent father to be Zeus, their long-lost mother Aphrodite?
My father is a recovered alcoholic. The first word vastly outweighs the second in my experience of him: he quit drinking two months after I was born. (As a child, at those AA meetings, I’d tease him that I’d been sober longer—and so I wanted a shiny medallion, like his, for this accomplishment.) My gratitude for my father’s recovery is as big as the western sky, as endless and as difficult to articulate. But the second word carries more weight, myth-wise. Like an old country song, alcoholism offers the solace of a shortcut, a whole story inherent in a few letters. It conjures years of destitution, desperation, dark streets and dirty bars, whole nights or weeks or months lost down a bottle and waking from them unable to remember. I wonder if some of Calamity’s lies didn’t arise from a need to fill in such painful blanks.
Childhood has its empty spaces, too, as most of those years are inaccessible to memory. I know, though, that my favorite game was make-believe. I dressed up friends or dolls or only myself, then imagined lands of princesses and knights and monsters to occupy, to live within. As I got older, the imagined lands came to resemble our own, but the artifice of stories remained. (Driving across the country was one story I wanted to tell about myself, a glamorous narrative in which I was an archetype, a western heroine, resourceful and carefree and brave. I am so often none of these things.)
Those were the best years of my life, my father once told me—getting sober, raising you. In my early twenties, in need of purpose, I conflated these two phrases (two narratives) into one, altering my own origin story. The knight no longer fought off the monster of disease so the princess could live happily ever after. Now the princess, by simple virtue of her birth, her pink-cheeked innocence and child’s goodness, destroyed the monster, saved the errant knight.
That’s a pretty myth. If my birth has meaning, I am spared the struggle of making such meaning later, when it requires effort and action and courage, the plain bravery of doing something worthwhile with my days. In my early twenties, this bravery was often beyond my reach; I was waylaid by my own monsters.
And I still am. But I understand now that every story can be told many ways, and the version we need changes as we do. Sometimes we need a pretty, simple story, a story with a hero and a single rescue, a clear-cut path. Sometimes we are up for bushwhacking through the complicated terrain that more closely resembles reality, where rescue occurs not once but one day at a time.
I read Jean McCormick’s letters before James D. McLaird’s biography, ignorant of the former’s obvious falseness. My disappointment on learning of the forgery was watered down with relief. Possible, not proven: I do not want Calamity confined to a page, to a single account—especially one so rife with contradiction and lies. In print, lies damn. In the air they live, and live large, and my Calamity is clever enough to know that. She is flawed only in the most interesting ways: stubborn, foolhardy, wishful, overeager. She is short-tempered and sensitive and desperate, as I have been. In the children’s books of my youth, these faults are present only in trace amounts, like vaccines for the larger struggles of rage and fear and sorrow. If possible, I would be first in line to be immunized.
I use Calamity for my own ends, my own story—so I can hardly begrudge another the same allowance. All these fictions begin to seem fair, given Calamity’s tendency to fictionalize herself. When you tell a story, I think, you let the story go.
Buffalo Girls borrows form and content from McCormick’s version of Calamity, splicing its narrative about the later years of her life—and the taming transformation of the American West—with epistles to her lost daughter. In the novel’s final pages, however, Calamity reveals she isn’t able to have children; she has been writing to a fiction. The film adaptation omitted this revelation, finding McCormick’s source material more cinematic, but I love the idea of Calamity telling herself stories, for her own solace and amusement. It’s not her fault if we overhear her, and believe them.
Belief in narrative can be dangerous—when alcohol seems like the best plot device available, for example—but it can also heal. Talking is part of the psychiatric treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. Reading or writing can save a life, as can sharing a story with a dozen strangers in metal folding chairs. We tell ourselves stories in order to remember—selectively, yes, but still—and to re-member as well. I believe this self-making, this making it up, is worth something. I believe Calamity had the right idea. We tell ourselves stories in order to cope, and it means something, it has to, this telling, we tell ourselves.
I filled few notebook pages during that month of driving. I averaged ten hours a day in the car, so my notes are thin—fit in before collapsing, aching, into a different bed each night—or sloppy, scrawled mid-drive with the notebook propped against the steering wheel. I knew that what I was doing was as close to a tale as I’d lived, and I wanted to record it. A would-be writer’s hubris, maybe, but maybe just that of a girl alone on the road in the West. The landscape gets under your skin, you know. Crossing the Continental Divide, breathing in the Black Hills, you start to understand the blood shed for this land. You start to think you’d bleed for it, too. Imagine the sky stretched like a canvas over those plains, as it was one hundred, two hundred years ago. Imagine what it must have been like, when Calamity saw it: the taste of history in her throat like smoke, a craving to be satisfied.
We want life to be larger than life—a logical impossibility, an anti-tautology. I don’t know if this feeling ever dissipates entirely, but I know that—at least in these United States—it is especially keen when we are young, five or fifteen or twenty-five, whether witnessing the country clamor into the West from a saddle’s vantage or merely reading about it. When Calamity was young, she knew myths were being made; she found gaps in the stories told around her and inserted herself. And didn’t she achieve the nearly unachievable, the elusive American dream? Born into poverty and orphaned at twelve, she died famous and beloved. Today, her name evokes not the facts of her life, but the legend she made of it. When we think of Calamity, we think of her glorious lies.
That’s the beauty of myth. We read it and don’t believe it. We love it, knowing it’s not true. Myth is a way to explain the world—or to make it more interesting. Calamity interests me—interests us, by my latest count. We’re buying what she’s selling. Calamity is as American as they come, embellishing her life even as she lived it. So goes our nation, with its self-important claims to mission, its awful and beautiful bluster. Calamity’s life—as she told it—might be a work of fiction, but so are Captain Ahab’s, Hester Prynne’s, and Jay Gatsby’s. Stories don’t have to be true to be great. They just have to be told, and told well.
“In my mind I made you alive, Janey—that’s better than nothing ain’t it?” McMurtry’s heroine asks this question of her invented child, receptacle for all her sorrow and hope. In our minds we made you alive, Calamity. You spun a yarn and we grasped at every fraying end, tied on fresh thread, kept it going. Yours was a story we—I—needed, the story of a woman who named herself, and made herself, the story of a story told until it mattered. May every storyteller be as stubborn, and as blessed.
McLaird, James D. Calamity Jane: The Woman and the Legend. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005.
McMurtry, Larry. Buffalo Girls: A Novel. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.