Biography Should Be Written by an Acute Enemy

Arthur James Balfour? Batman? Oscar Wilde? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Apparently, the crime-fighting superhero Batman is a quotation expert. I recall watching a rerun episode of the 1960s television series during which Batman was asked to identify the creator of an obscure quotation about biography, and he immediately answered correctly with the name Arthur James Balfour who was a British statesman. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: Batman’s capacious memory was displayed during an episode broadcast on March 8, 1967. Batman (played by Adam West) wished to send a message to the villain King Tut, so he called a popular radio broadcaster Jolly Jackson (played by Tommy Noonan) to relay the message. Jackson demanded that Batman prove his identity by answering a difficult question about the ascription of a quotation. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Jolly Jackson: Alright listen. If you’re really Batman then you’re a very brainy guy, right.

Batman: Go on.

Jolly Jackson: Tell me who said, “Biography should be written by an acute enemy”?

Batman: Arthur James Balfour, born 1848, died 1930. He was quoted by S. K. Ratcliffe in the London Observer, January 30, 1927.

QI conjectures that the writers of the television show obtained this information from “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations”. The 1938 edition contains the following entry: 2

ARTHUR JAMES BALFOUR
[1848-1930]
Biography should be written by an acute enemy.
Quoted by S. K. RATCLIFFE in The London Observer, January 30, 1927

The citation in “Bartlett’s” was accurate. In 1927 “The Observer” published a piece by S. K. Ratcliffe containing the following: 3

Biography, I once heard Lord Balfour say, should be written by an acute enemy. If that were a principle to be rigidly applied (it obviously is not), there would be no place as biographer for Mr. Francis Hirst.

Yet, there are subtleties to this tale of provenance. As indicated further below the quotation under examination appeared with an anonymous attribution in 1913.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The idea expressed in the quotation is controversial. In 1887 the well-known wit Oscar Wilde comically expressed an opposing notion: 4

Every great man nowadays has his disciples, and it is usually Judas who writes the biography.

A separate QI article about the above quotation is available here.

In 1892 a writer in a Seattle, Washington newspaper expressed incredulity that someone would desire a biography written by an enemy: 5

What man is there who would say that the record of his life, or his epitaph, should be written by his enemies rather than his friends.

The earliest match located by QI for the quotation being studied appeared in 1913 within “The New Statesman” of London. An unnamed book reviewer disclaimed credit and specified an anonymous attribution: 6

Biography, said a high authority the other day, should be written by an acute enemy. The character study, at all events, is best done by a generous opponent. Mr. Gardiner is often good in eulogy, but he is far better when he has to balance his admiration with an assault upon something that at bottom he distrusts or detests.

In 1925 a reviewer using the pseudonym Kappa in “The Nation & The Athenaeum” ascribed the saying to Arthur James Balfour, former Prime Minister of the U.K.: 7

I once heard Lord Balfour say that a man’s biography should be written by an acute enemy. An acute enemy, but kind, would have been my choice for Robertson Nicoll. His memory, however, is safe in the keeping of Mr. Herbert Darlow, who has written a book crowded with interest for the journalist.

In 1927 S. K. Ratcliffe credited Balfour as mentioned previously in this article: 8

Biography, I once heard Lord Balfour say, should be written by an acute enemy.

In 1942 “The Bangor Daily News” of Maine printed the saying as a filler item: 9

Biography should be written by an acute enemy.
Arthur James Balfour.

In 1950 a newspaper in Northern Ireland printed the following: 10

Meditation upon some of the books below brought to mind Lord Balfour’s dictum that “biography ought to be written by an acute enemy,”; with which may be coupled Cromwell’s order to put in wart and all.

In conclusion, a television episode of the series Batman in 1967 depicted the caped crusader as a savant in the quotation domain. He was asked about a quotation, and he knew that it was ascribed to Arthur James Balfour. That quotation appeared in “The New Statesman” in 1913 with an attribution to “a high authority”, and by 1925 it was being credited to Balfour.

(Great thanks to Edgar I whose tweet about showing dialog and images from the Batman episode led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. Batman Television Series, Season 2, Episode 24, Batman’s Waterloo, Broadcast date: March 8, 1967, Quotation spoken at 11 minutes 53 seconds of 25 minutes 11 seconds. (Viewed via Amazon Prime Video on August 10, 2021)
  2. 1938, Familiar Quotations by John Bartlett, Eleventh Edition, Edited by Christopher Morley and Louella D. Everett, Entry: Arthur James Balfour, Quote Page 687, Column 2, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1927 January 30, The Observer, John Morley by S. K. Ratcliffe, Quote Page 7, Column 3, London, England. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1914, Bibliography of Oscar Wilde by Stuart Mason, The Butterfly’s Boswell by Oscar Wilde (Reprint of “The Butterfly’s Boswell” by unsigned from “Court and Society Review”, Page 378, Volume 4, Number 146, Date: April 20, 1887), Start Page 28, Quote Page 28, T. Werner Laurie Ltd., London. (Internet Archive archive.org; QI has not yet directly verified this excerpt in the 1887 periodical) link
  5. 1892 August 31, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Did Calvin Burn Servetus? (Correspondence from George F. Whitworth), Quote Page 4, Column 5, Seattle, Washington. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1913 November 22, The New Statesman: A Weekly Review of Politics and Literature, Current Literature; Shorter Notices, (Book Review of A. G. Gardiner’s “Pillars of Society”), Quote Page 22, The Statesman Publishing Company, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  7. 1925 September 26, The Nation & The Athenaeum, Volume 37, Issue 26, Life and Politics by Kappa, Start Page 758, Quote Page 759, Column 1, London, England. (ProQuest)
  8. 1927 January 30, The Observer, John Morley by S. K. Ratcliffe, Quote Page 7, Column 3, London, England. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1942 January 21, The Bangor Daily News, Bittersweet, Quote Page 8, Column 2, Bangor, Maine. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1950 November 27, The Northern Whig, Books: A biography of the “Lady of the Lamp”, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Antrim, Northern Ireland. (British Newspaper Archive)