Dr. Kate Clifford Larson: Best Selling author, historian, & consultant

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Kate Clifford Larson is an author, historian, and consultant.  Her third and latest book, Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, October 2015), sheds new light on the tragic and relatively unknown life of President John F. Kennedy’s disabled sister. Larson’s first book, Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero (Ballantine/One World, 2004), established Larson as the leading Harriet Tubman expert. Her critically acclaimed biography has been optioned by HBO for an untitled Tubman biopic starring Emmy Award winning actress Viola Davis (ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder), with screen writer Kirk Ellis (PBS’s John Adams). Her second book, The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln (Basic Books), was released in 2008, and she served as a part-time consultant to The American Film Company’s The Conspirator.  Directed by Robert Redford and starring Robin Wright and James McAvoy, the critically acclaimed film explored the real life story of Mary Surratt and her involvement in John Wilkes Booth’s plot to assassinate the president.

With two degrees from Simmons College and an MBA from Northeastern University, Larson spent several years working for a boutique investment banking firm in Boston. After the birth of both of her children, she decided to pursue a life-long passion for history, earning a doctorate in American History from the University of New Hampshire, specializing in 19th and 20th century U.S. Women’s and African American History.  She has been a consultant, curator and interpretive specialist for numerous museum, community and public history initiatives related to Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad in Maryland, Delaware, and New York, including the 125 mile Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, an All-American Road, the National Park Service Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Park Special Resource Study, the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and Visitor Center in Maryland, and the Harriet Tubman Home in Auburn, NY. Much of this work helped build the foundation for two National Historical Parks in Tubman’s honor, formally established by President Obama in December 2015.

Her passion continues to be researching and writing about women’s lives.  With the release of Rosemary, Larson reveals, again, that even the most hidden and obscured history can be teased out from the shadows.

What do you do best?

I would like to think that I am an exceptionally good researcher and listener – not just in the auditory sense, but visually and contextually, too.  The written word tells us some things, but oral stories, physical spaces, social and political landscapes, and historical contexts all add layers of complexity, illumination and sometimes, confusion, to historical subjects.  The interplay of memory, memorialization, or remembering, is also something I take into account when researching and writing about my subjects.  Over time, memories are altered and infused with additional biases, contexts, and prejudices.  Documents and written records have many facets to them.  The words themselves, who wrote them, why, when, and in what context.  What was the writer’s motivation? What are subtexts to the words in the document? And images – paintings, drawings, photographs, etc. – all tell stories as well.  Pulling all of these elements together, letting them percolate, so to speak, then, teasing out the story, takes time and patience.  It is incredibly fascinating, and I hope readers agree.

What makes you the best? 

I certainly am not the best at what I do – there are so many great historians and story tellers out there that put me to shame.  But, I have had exceptional mentors and teachers throughout my life, and because of them I have developed a deep curiosity and a passion for historical figures – particularly women - and events that have shaped our nation and world.  I am dedicated to authenticity and integrity, both during the research process and in my interpretation.  I challenge myself to begin the process without set-in-stone opinions or assumptions about an historical person, place or event, but rather allow the documents and evidence to lead me to that moment where I feel secure in my conclusions and interpretation. Objectivity is very difficult to maintain, and I strive to achieve it as much as possible.  Sometimes I just can’t, however!

How will you stay the best? 

All those much-better-than-me historians, whom I admire so deeply, challenge me every day to be a better historian.  I rely on some of those former mentors and teachers to help me maintain a level of distance and objectivity about my subjects so that I am always focused on following the evidence. And I am always trying to improve my writing. I believe that the academy has been slow in encouraging academics to write for a more general reader audience. There is so much exceptional scholarship out there – incredible stories worthy of Hollywood blockbuster films – but few people learn about them because they are shared with the academic community rather than the general public. With that said, the integrity and standards demanded by the academy are crucial to what I do and what historians do – illuminating our past with principled research and ethical standards.

Biggest success?

Aside from a 30 year marriage and two beautiful children, I would say my biographies are a good share of my personal success.  My work on Rosemary Kennedy will be the first time that she has been put at the center of the Kennedy family narrative.  In doing so, I have uncovered a story that adds new dimensions and a richness that had been missing, and shows the Kennedy family in a different light.  My book also highlights the struggles that people with mental illness and disabilities have faced during the past century, how far we have come, and where we still need to go.  My research on Harriet Tubman has also brought to life the real story of this extraordinary woman, debunks some persistent myths and stereotypes about her, while still revealing the factual details of her exceptional life and achievements. I am extremely proud that my work has contributed to the nearly two-decade effort to get Tubman recognized as an American treasure whose life is worthy of a National Park. As of December 2015, we have two national parks in her honor – one in Auburn, NY and one on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.  I am very proud of that success for Tubman.

What are your aspirations?

Personal: to find healing for my disabled son, to raise awareness about mental illness and focus on our country’s obligation to commit resources to fund research into diseases of the brain. We as a nation need to do a better job addressing the complexities, treatment, and management of mental illness, and its effect on individuals, families and communities. Resources are few and far between. We cannot continue to allow prisons to be warehouses for the mentally ill.  Those suffering with mental illness and disabilities, and their families who love them, need help now.  The costs - physical, emotional, social, economic - are too high to ignore even one day longer.

Business: to find, research, and write about intriguing, important, and fascinating women in American history.

Most challenging moment?

Research and writing biographies presents many challenges, particularly when your subject did not leave a trove of personal papers behind for future historians to mine.  I have hit many research walls with all three of my subjects.  Rosemary Kennedy attained a marginal fourth-grade level of literacy, so she left little evidence of her own thoughts and feelings. The archival records held at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston – where many of the family papers are housed - has restrictions on some of the documents associated with Rosemary. Working within the limits of those restrictions, and looking to other resources to fill in the historical gaps demanded patience and determination.  With Harriet Tubman, it was the sheer number of hours it took to read the thousands of pages of documents related to her (and often it was only a sentence or two) that are scattered in libraries, archives, museums, historical societies and personal collections all over the country.  Some of those records had been long lost, obscured, and overlooked for generations. Trying to piece Tubman’s personal history together took nearly ten years. But those documents were fertile with remarkable detail about Tubman, her family, and the communities within which she lived and interacted. And Mary Surratt was one of the most difficult to write about. Not only did she leave very little personal ephemera behind, but early in my research process I discovered that Surratt was guilty of the crime she had been accused and hanged for it.  I did not like her as a person and that made it difficult to write about her.  She was a very smart, passionate, and loyal woman, who deserved to have her story told, however, and that is what I like about what I do so much – giving a voice to those who had been denied it for so long, irrespective of how likeable or unlikeable they are.

What fascinates you?

American history and all its warts and messiness.  I am endlessly fascinated by the courage, integrity, and remarkable ingenuity and tenacity of some of our forebears in the face of formidable obstacles.  And I often think about who will be the subject of historical biographies one-hundred years from now?

Favorite Motto:

There is nothing more worse than active ignorance. (19th century Anonymous)

Favorite People: 

Harriet Tubman, and the legions of people who have fought for Civil Rights for centuries so that our democracy can fulfill its promises of equality and justice for all. Least favorite: Mary Surratt!

Favorite Places:

My favorite places are wherever my family is.  Other than that, the coast and mountains of Maine (I grew up there), and Annisquam on Cape Ann, Massachusetts – it is heaven on earth.

Current Passions:

Talking about Rosemary Kennedy and mental health issues, and starting research on my next book project.