Oscar Wilde? Arthur Pendenys? Arthur James Balfour? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: An ill-intentioned biography is indistinguishable from a character assassination. The famous wit Oscar Wilde crafted a pertinent line on this topic. Here are three versions:
Every great man nowadays has his disciples, and
…it is usually Judas who writes the biography.
…it is invariably Judas who writes the biography.
…it is always Judas who writes the biography.
Would you please help me to determine which version is accurate?
Quote Investigator: In April 1887 Oscar Wilde published an unsigned article titled “The Butterfly’s Boswell” in “Court and Society Review”. Wilde’s piece sardonically discussed a recent fawning article about the painter James McNeill Whistler. In the following excerpt “Judas” denoted Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus Christ. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1
Every great man nowadays has his disciples, and it is usually Judas who writes the biography. Mr. Whistler, however, is more fortunate than most of his confrères, as he has found in Mr. Walter Dowdeswell the most ardent of admirers, indeed, we might almost say the most sympathetic of secretaries.
Wilde employed this line on at least three different occasions, but he varied the phrasing slightly. Below are selected citations in chronological order.
In July 1890 Wilde published “The True Function and Value of Criticism” in the journal “The Nineteenth Century”. Wilde presented a dialogue between the characters Gilbert and Ernest who were identified by the abbreviations G and E. In the excerpt below “Boswell” referred to James Boswell who wrote an acclaimed multi-volume biography of his good friend lexicographer Samuel Johnson. Wilde replaced the word “usually” with “invariably”: 2
E. But do you seriously propose that every man should become his own Boswell? What would become of our industrious compilers of Lives and Recollections in that case?
G. What has become of them? They are the pest of the age, nothing more and nothing less. Every great man nowadays has his disciples, and it is invariably Judas who writes the biography.
E. My dear fellow!
G. I am afraid it is true. Formerly we used to canonise our heroes. The modern method is to vulgarise them. Cheap editions of great books are always welcome, but cheap editions of great men are detestable.
In 1891 Wilde published a collection of his essays in the book “Intentions”. The 1890 essay was retitled “The Critic As Artist, Part I”. Also, the text was revised. Wilde replaced “invariably” with “always”: 3
Every great man nowadays has his disciples, and it is always Judas who writes the biography.
In 1895 a collection of Wilde’s bon mots were privately printed in London under the title “Oscariana: Epigrams”. The book included the version of the quotation from 1891: 4
The Critic as Artist.
Every great man now-a-days has his disciples, and it is always Judas who writes the biography.
In 1902 the New York journal “The Critic” printed a note from Arthur Pendenys containing a version of the witticism without attribution: 5
Let us hope that a suitable biographer of Mr. Rhodes will be found. A great man has many disciples, but unfortunately it is generally Judas who writes the biography. We want neither Judas nor Mary Magdalen. All that is essential of both praise and blame could be told of Mr. Rhodes in a volume of three hundred pages.
In 1913 “The New Statesman” of London printed an article with the following counter-intuitive suggestion: 6
Biography, said a high authority the other day, should be written by an acute enemy.
The above saying is usually attributed to statesman Arthur James Balfour. A QI article about the quotation attributed to Balfour is available here.
In 1948 “The Macmillan Book Of Proverbs, Maxims, And Famous Phrases” printed a variant using the plural “biographies” credited to Wilde: 7
Every great man nowadays has his disciples, and it is always Judas who writes the biographies.
Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist. (1891)
In 1969 the scholar Richard Ellman published a collection of Wilde’s writings about criticism. The collection included the 1887 essay “The Butterfly’s Boswell” containing the original version of the quotation under examination. The collection was also reprinted in 1982. 8
In conclusion, this remark should be credited to Oscar Wilde. He employed three different versions. The version with “usually” occurred first.
Image Notes: Public domain painting of “The Betrayal of Judas” by Duccio di Buoninsegna circa 1308-1311. Image has been resized and cropped.
(Great thanks to Edgar I whose tweet about a thematically related quotation attributed to Arthur James Balfour led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks to editor Robert Andrews of the “The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations” (1993) and editor Fred R. Shapiro of “The Yale Book of Quotations” (2006) who both pointed to the lesser-known 1887 citation.)
- 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 ↩
- 1890 July, The Nineteenth Century: A Monthly Review, Volume 28, The True Function and Value of Criticism: With Some Remarks on the Importance of Doing Nothing a Dialogue by Oscar Wilde, Persons: Gilbert and Ernest, Start Page 123, Quote Page 124, Kegan Paul, Trench, & Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1891, Intentions by Oscar Wilde, The Critic As Artist, Part I, Start Page 79, Quote Page 81, Heinemann and Balestier, Leipzig, Germany. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1895, Oscariana: Epigrams, Section: The Critic as Artist, Quote Page 38, Privately Printed, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1902 June, The Critic: An Illustrated Monthly Review of Literature, Art and Life, Volume 40, Number 6, Books of To-Day and Books of To-Morrow, Correspondence from Arthur Pendenys to Belinda, Date: May 1902, Start Page 564, Quote Page 564, Published for The Critic Company by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 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 ↩
- 1948, The Macmillan Book Of Proverbs, Maxims, And Famous Phrases, Selected and Arranged by Burton Stevenson, Topic: Biography, Quote Page 176, The Macmillan Company, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1982, The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde, Edited by Richard Ellman, The Butterfly’s Boswell (Reprint of “The Butterfly’s Boswell” unsigned from “Court and Society Review”, Page 378, Volume 4, Number 146, Date: April 20, 1887), Start Page 65, Quote Page 65, Phoenix Edition; The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified with scans) ↩