Monday, January 30, 2023

Q&A with Norman S. Poser




Norman S. Poser is the author of the new biography From the Battlefield to the Stage: The Many Lives of General John Burgoyne. His other books include Lord Mansfield: Justice in the Age of Reason. He is professor emeritus at Brooklyn Law School.


Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of British General John Burgoyne (1722-1792)?


A: While doing research for another book--on the 18th-century London stage--I came across a letter Burgoyne wrote to David Garrick, the great actor and manager of the Drury Lane theatre. The letter had to do with a play Burgoyne had written and Garrick planned to produce. Until then, I hadn't known that Burgoyne was a playwright as well as an army general.


In the letter, Burgoyne renounced any profits from the production of the play and suggested they be given to a fund that Garrick had set up for indigent actors. I was so impressed by the elegant style as well as the substance of Burgoyne's letter that I began to consider writing his biography.

Q: How did you research his life, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: I did most of the research in libraries in London and New York. Because of Covid, I never got to the library of Knowsley Hall, the seat of the Earl of Derby, but the curator of the Knowsley Hall library sent me photocopies of letters Burgoyne had written.


One thing that surprised me was that, in addition to being a general and a playwright, Burgoyne was a member of Parliament for over 30 years, where he was a reformer who fought the corrupt East India Company.


Q: The writer Andrew J. O’Shaughnessy said of the book, “This is a fresh account of Burgoyne, and the first major biography of the enigmatic general in decades.” What do you think of that description, and do you see Burgoyne as enigmatic?


A: How could I not like O’Shaughnessy's statement? As to his use of the word “enigmatic,” if he means that there has been, and still is, much debate over Burgoyne’s share of the blame for the Saratoga debacle [during the Revolutionary War], I agree with that. 


Q: What do you see as his legacy today?


A: I see Burgoyne’s legacy as an example for us all. I am thinking of his bravery, patriotism, humaneness, talent, urbanity, sociability, generosity, loyalty to his subordinates, support of the rule of law, and common decency.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on a memoir. Beginning in 1948, I have worked as a journalist, lawyer, consultant, regulator, teacher, and writer. So there's enough to write about.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Norman S. Poser.

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