Friday, April 12, 2013

Q&A with author Greta Nettleton

Greta Nettleton
Greta Nettleton is the author of the family memoir The Quack’s Daughter. It focuses on her great-grandmother, Cora Keck, whose mother was a controversial 19th-century patent-medicine entrepreneur called Mrs. Dr. Rebecca Keck. Greta Nettleton has worked as a writer and researcher for a variety of clients, including the World Bank, and she lives in Rockland County, N.Y.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book about your great-grandmother?

A: There were actually two pivotal moments: the first was when four huge trunks filled with family artifacts from my father’s mother and grandmother arrived at my house in 2008 and my husband and two sons put the trunks in my garage. My mother had moved to assisted living and given the trunks to me. It was an overwhelming amount of stuff, and I said to myself that if I’m going to store all of this, I would have to make it work for me. I stopped all my freelance projects, and began to examine what was inside the trunks. I had a hunch that there was something worthwhile to be found.

At around the same time, a friend of the family asked me to do a presentation for the New Haven Vassar Alumnae/i Association based on a diary that this same great grandmother, whose name was Cora Keck, had kept at Vassar College in 1885. I was a little tentative when I put the PowerPoint together; I thought it wouldn’t be of interest to anyone beyond my family, but the audience was gripped by the many visual images I had and by the story they told and was peppering me with questions. One woman raised her hand and asked, Are you writing a book about this? And of course I answered, Yes.

Before this moment, I had no idea that Cora Keck’s years at Vassar and her mother’s unusual career would be of interest to a wider audience. I was raised thinking that my family history was not important. The idea that this was interesting and relevant—it took me a long time to absorb. My research process was an important part of this; the research pulled me into the history.

Q: What type of research did you need to do, both to find out more about her life, and to track down the photos and other documents found in the book?

A: The short answer is that none of this could have been done without the modern Internet. The ability to search billions of pages for short strings of words was key—at the time I was starting in 2007-8, Google Books had just put on-line an enormous collection of 19th century volumes from the great university libraries, Harvard, U.C. Berkeley, the University of Michigan and so forth. Government grants were funding the scanning of thousands of 19th century newspapers all over the Midwest. “Mrs. Dr. Keck”—you can search for that string. It’s incredibly powerful. I was so lucky she wasn’t named Smith or Washington or Lincoln. 

Beyond that, search strings for phrases I didn’t understand from Cora’s diary pulled out things I had no idea I would even have to look for. I found the originals from the now-forgotten books, newspapers and plays that she and her contemporaries were actually reading or going to New York City to see. She described a visit of Mark Twain to Vassar on May 2, 1885, and his autobiographical description of that visit came right up, posted by the University of Virginia. It was incredible. I felt like a time traveler right on the spot. I snooped into the financial conditions of all Cora’s family and all friends in the 1870 and 1880 Census records—it’s all there if you can read it.

That got me going—but there were limitations. It was hard to read the old Victorian handwriting; that took about a year to learn. It took time to make good guesses about Cora’s bad handwriting, poor spelling and constant use of long-forgotten slang.

Then I made about six trips up to Vassar, to the Archives & Special Collections at the Vassar library. They were incredibly generous and opened all their files to an independent historian right off the street, so to speak. I read through the college catalogs for the years that Cora was there, and I was comparing the names with the names in Cora’s 1885 diary. It is common for Vassar graduates’ descendants to send artifacts back when the graduates die, and I found pictures of most of Cora’s friends in the Vassar archives. I was able to develop information on who ran the school—this allowed me to add a narrative about the financial and administrative crisis that almost destroyed the college in 1885 that was accurate. I also dug up a lot of personal information about her boyfriends at the Yale and Columbia University archives.

The third thing I did was take a trip to Davenport. I had never been to the Midwest, or to Iowa. It was a powerful experience, like taking your first trip back to the “old country” where your ancestors were from. I found a tremendous amount of information in the local history section of the Davenport public library.

Q: How long did the research take?

A: I started decoding the diary in the spring of 2006. I didn’t conceptualize it as a book until several years later. Six or seven years in total.

Q: Your book is titled The Quack’s Daughter, and Cora’s mother, “Mrs. Dr.” Rebecca Keck, a patent medicine entrepreneur, plays a role in the story. How controversial was Rebecca Keck, and how unusual was it in the last decades of the 19th century for a woman to be involved in that type of medical work?

A: She was extraordinarily controversial, and was very unique. I didn’t realize this when I started. I was looking for her name in the list of regular doctors in the Scott County Medical Society, which was quite a naïve search.

She was so controversial that she was actually arrested at least five times between 1878 and 1885, and was publicly denounced as “Foul and Damnable” in the Chicago Tribune by the secretary of the Illinois State Board of Health. The year 1878 was the beginning of her legal troubles, when Illinois passed its first Medical Practices Act to drive out the irregular practitioners, of which she was one of the most prominent. She eventually worked out an understanding with her foes. She must have had an iron will—Margaret Thatcher and she probably had a lot in common. She refused to buckle under. She could have suffered less and made more money if she had become a patent medicine manufacturer like Lydia Pinkham, and had men sell the product for her. But she didn’t—she insisted on calling herself a physician and meeting her patients face to face to prescribe her alternative, naturopathic treatments. She spent thousands of dollars on lawyers and long court battles. She never gave up fighting that fight.

Q: A highlight for Cora was the time she spent at Vassar College studying music, but her family apparently did not encourage her pursuit of a musical career. What did you learn from your research about the conflicting influences on Cora’s life?

A: It was a tremendous learning experience. I had very low expectations about Cora’s musical talent; like many contemporary critics, I thought Vassar’s music program was just a finishing school, and she just went to plunk out some little sonatas and find a society husband. What I discovered was that the professional world of classical music in the 1880s was closed to all women pianists, no matter how talented they might be (with only one or two remarkable exceptions) so that graduates of good programs could easily be dismissed as amateurs because it was impossible for them to have a career afterwards.

Cora saved all her concert programs and a bound book of her favorite sheet music. I have her different music teachers’ penciled notations. This was very illuminating. I am not a great musician, but I did study viola for 12 years, through high school and at Duke, where I went to college, and I have a sense of what it takes to be a professional, and as I started to analyze her programs, I could get a sense of where she stood—her status and position compared to the other students was rising. She was playing at a level where if she were alive today, she could have held her own at Juilliard.

However, Cora had no hope of performing on the concert stage after she left college, even as an amateur. Her parents were very conservative in their religion and social beliefs. Mrs. Dr. Keck compensated for the controversies in her professional life by trying to control the propriety of Cora’s personal life. She was the target of so much criticism already. She and her husband were both from conservative Mennonite or Amish families in Pennsylvania and later joined a very conservative Methodist church when they moved to Iowa. It was opposed to drinking, card playing, dancing. It was very strict.

Q: Are you writing another book?

A: Yes, I am. I’m writing a prequel. The story of Mrs. Dr. Keck, which is both technical and serious, was not easy to mix with the story of Cora, which was lighthearted and fun. Cora’s mother—whatever she wrote has been lost, all her letters, everything. I don’t have her voice. To put her in Cora’s book, I would have had to make up a lot. So I had to mostly leave her out.

However, I did find out a lot about her life and career. In modern terms, Mrs. Dr. Keck would be called a naturopath. Her products were herbal, touchy-feely, in the popular tradition of women healers we’ve seen on TV. I started out assuming the worst, that she was selling snake-oil, that she was selling alcohol. A teetotaler selling alcohol. That’s not what was happening.

So the second book will be biographical and will put Mrs. Dr. Keck in context with the other women doctors in Davenport at the time, of which there were quite a few, and all were remarkable in different ways. For instance, one was Dr. Margaret Cleaves, M.D., author of Autobiography of a Neurasthene. She left Davenport and went to New York City, and became very well known internationally as a “medical electrician.” The regular doctors were trying to use the new technology of electricity to see if it would be useful in new treatments for disease. She was a regular M.D.; she went to the University of Iowa medical school. She played by the rules with the big guys, which Mrs. Dr. Keck refused to do. By the way, many of the techniques developed by the medical electricians are now pretty much discredited as quackery. The novelist T.C. Boyle memorably described some of these experimental treatments to great comic effect in The Road to Wellville in 1993. It’s one of my favorite books.

The arc of Mrs. Dr. Keck’s career illuminates the birth of other controversial, alternative medical theories such as Osteopathy and Chiropractic, invented in the same era and location by her charismatic, fast-talking contemporaries Andrew T. Still and Daniel D. Palmer. I discovered that Midwestern doctors and patients were already afraid of “Socialized Medicine” in the 1880s and 90s. The fast-changing landscape of late-19th century medicine is still lurking underneath today’s equally violent controversies about the proper role of government in the medical marketplace.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Well, I loved losing my preconceived ideas about American history as a triumphant time-line of change and progress—as I did the research and examined the original sources, I found that in many fundamental ways, America has hardly changed at all in 150 years. For example, I was startled to discover how similar daily life in the Midwest in the 1880s was to American life in more recent decades; teens in high school in 1883 partied and roamed around Davenport just like the kids in Grease 80 years later, and their parents even had concerns about domestic terrorism similar to our own. The bomb-throwing anarchists and nihilists of the 1880s filled the same role that suicidal bomb-throwing terrorists fill in our news today. Economic booms and devastating depressions punctuated 19th century capitalism on a regular schedule, just like in our own times.

Another thing is the public discourse about women working and work/family issues—this problem was already well understood at the time that Cora’s mother sent her daughter to college. We tend to forget how many people in the 19th century were very concerned and sympathetic about increasing women’s rights. Victorian men, for all their flaws and limitations, were actually the ones who unlocked the potential for women to run independent businesses by implementing legal reforms, particularly the Married Women’s Property Acts that began in the West and Midwest starting around the time of the Civil War. The law was reformed in Iowa around 1870.

Mrs. Dr. Keck could start her business specifically because she lived in a state where married women had the right to control their own money. Our country’s original English common law was brutal at erasing married women’s rights and Queen Victoria’s England lagged far behind us during this era. That kind of reform was subtle but critical. Cora’s mother could never have run a business in South Carolina or Connecticut. The Midwest was by far the most liberal.  It became very clear to me that in the East, a girl’s social status suffered the more freely she behaved, and that she would “lose tone,” in the words of a South Carolinian Vassar girl, if people saw her doing it. The big trade-off for girls coming out of Vassar into the elite Eastern social world was the danger of gaining autonomy and freedom at the cost of losing their caste. Mrs. Dr. Keck was a social nobody when she started, so she had nothing to lose that way, but Cora, as the daughter of a wealthy family, was in a completely different position.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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