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.

Continue reading Biography Should Be Written by an Acute Enemy

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)

Every Great Man Nowadays Has His Disciples, and It Is Always Judas Who Writes the Biography

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.

Continue reading Every Great Man Nowadays Has His Disciples, and It Is Always Judas Who Writes the Biography

Notes:

  1. 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

Always Forgive Your Enemies; Nothing Annoys Them So Much

Oscar Wilde? Walter Winchell? Reader’s Digest? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A well-known moral injunction states that one should forgive one’s enemies. A humorous twist suggests that one should grant forgiveness because it produces annoyance in one’s adversaries. This notion has been attributed to the famous wit Oscar Wilde. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde died in 1900, and QI has found no substantive evidence that he originated this quip. It is not listed in researcher Ralph Keyes’s important compilation “The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde”. 1 Also, the joke does not occur in the 2006 compendium “Oscar Wilde in Quotation: 3,100 Insults, Anecdotes, and Aphorisms”. 2

The earliest match located by QI appeared in the popular syndicated column of Walter Winchell in 1954, and he pointed to the mass-circulation magazine “Reader’s Digest”. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 3

Reader’s Digest recalls O. Wilde’s: “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.”

QI has not yet located a precise citation within an issue of “Reader’s Digest”. In addition, quotations with attributions appearing in that magazine were often provided by readers who were compensated. The information was not carefully vetted for accuracy; hence, faulty data was sometimes submitted and propagated.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Always Forgive Your Enemies; Nothing Annoys Them So Much

Notes:

  1. 1996, The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde, Edited by Ralph Keyes, (Note: Search indicated that quotation was absent), HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  2. 2006, Oscar Wilde in Quotation: 3,100 Insults, Anecdotes, and Aphorisms, Topically Arranged with Attributions, Compiled and edited by Tweed Conrad, (Note: Search indicated that quotation was absent), McFarland & Company Inc., Jefferson, North Carolina. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1954 May 27, , Courier-Post, On Broadway by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 21, Column 1, Camden, New Jersey. (ProQuest)

The Things of Nature Do Not Really Belong To Us. We Should Leave Them To Our Children As We Have Received Them

Oscar Wilde? Lloyd Lewis? Henry Justin Smith? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The famous wit Oscar Wilde apparently expressed some forward thinking ideas about the environment. He believed that the natural world should be preserved so that it can be conveyed to our children in the condition it was received. Would you please help me to find a citation.

Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde visited Canada in 1882 and delivered a lecture in Ottawa on May 16 about “Art Decoration”. The following day the “Ottawa Citizen” reported on his clothes, his demeanor, and his speech. Wilde had noticed that the Ottawa river was filled with sawdust and the air was filled with smoke, so he diverged from his main topic to discuss pollution. The newspaper responded to Wilde as follows. Boldface added to excepts by QI: 1

That it is a pity that the Ottawa should be dirtied with saw dust has been long admitted, and that pure sky should be dirtied with smoke may also be a pity, but Mr. Wilde goes too far when he advocates that no man should be allowed to carry on a business which produces either of these results.

The following week Wilde delivered a lecture in Kingston, Canada, and the local newspaper reported that he objected to pollution because it damaged the common inheritance of humankind: 2

He had recently been in Ottawa, and had seen a noble river choked with sawdust. This he considered an outrage, as no one had a right to pollute the air or the water, which are the common inheritance of all.

During an interview with a Kingston journalist, Wilde suggested that industrialists should be forced to perform some form of recycling: 3

The public, he thought, should compel manufacturers to consume their own smoke, make use of their sawdust, and discharge their effluvia somewhere else than into beautiful rivers or life giving atmosphere. Ruskin had induced Manchester to stop similar pollution.

The citations above appeared contemporaneously with Wilde’s North American sojourn. The earliest match known to QI depicting natural resources as an inheritance for children appeared in the 1936 book “Oscar Wilde Discovers America” by Lloyd Lewis and Henry Justin Smith. The quotation below appeared in a section about Wilde’s 1882 visit to Canada: 4

At Ottawa, where he spoke next, Wilde realized how completely Canada had followed America into industrialism and business . . . And in that very April he had read complaints of the American Forestry Congress, which was organizing in Cincinnati against the rapid waste of forests.

As a Socialist, the poet opposed such exploitation of natural resources. “The things of nature do not really belong to us,” he said; “we should leave them to our children as we have received them.”

How this philosophy, if put into action, would have delayed the settlement of the West, was a question he did not face.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Things of Nature Do Not Really Belong To Us. We Should Leave Them To Our Children As We Have Received Them

Notes:

  1. 1882 May 17, Ottawa Citizen, Oscar Wilde: Lecture in the Grand Opera House, Quote Page 1, Column 4, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Scans from the Ottawa Public Library; thanks to Donna Halper who located the scan)
  2. 1882 May 23, The Daily News, Oscar Wilde On Decorative Art: A Thin Audience–Eloquent Discourse, Quote Page 2, Column 2, Kingston, Canada. (NewspaperArchive)
  3. 1882 May 23, The Daily News, Oscar Wilde Interviewed, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Kingston, Canada. (NewspaperArchive)
  4. 1936, Oscar Wilde Discovers America [1882] by Lloyd Lewis and Henry Justin Smith, Book 4: Eastward, Southward, Northward, Chapter 2: Adds a New Horror To Death, Quote Page 350, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York. (Verified with scans)

One Must Have a Heart of Stone To Read the Death of Little Nell Without Laughing

Oscar Wilde? Ada Leverson? Hesketh Pearson? Leslie Stokes? Sewell Stokes? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Charles Dickens published “The Old Curiosity Shop” in 1841. Nell Trent (Little Nell) was the virtuous child protagonist of the tale. The book was extremely popular, and most contemporary readers were saddened when they learned of Nell’s demise. Yet, some critics have viewed Dicken’s book as overly sentimental and emotionally manipulative. Here are two versions of a paraprosdokian:

One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.

One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears … of laughter.

This remark has been attributed to the famous wit Oscar Wilde, but I have been unable to find a solid citation. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde died in 1900. The two earliest citations known to QI appeared three decades later.

The biographer Hesketh Pearson wrote the introduction to a collection of Oscar Wilde’s works published in 1930 within the “Everyman’s Library” series. Pearson described the successes of Wilde’s comedies in the 1890’s, and he suggested that the playwright spoke the line during that period. Yet, Pearson did not explain how he learned about the witticism. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

It should be added that neither success nor misfortune could impair Wilde’s wit, the peculiar quality of which was exemplified at about this period in his comment on a scene by Dickens: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”

Also in 1930 author Ada Leverson, one of Wilde’s friends, published “Letters to the Sphinx from Oscar Wilde” which included her reminiscences about her relationship with Wilde. 2 Excerpts from this book were reprinted in “The Sphinx and Her Circle: A Biographical Sketch of Ada Leverson, 1862-1933” by Violet Wyndham. The following 1930 text was reprinted in the 1963 book: 3

He never liked even the grotesque part of Dickens. To those who praised Dickens, he said, ‘One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing’.

Of Max Beerbohm he said, ‘He plays with words as one plays with what one loves’. Adding, ‘When you are alone with him, Sphinx, does he take off his face and reveal his mask.”’

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading One Must Have a Heart of Stone To Read the Death of Little Nell Without Laughing

Notes:

  1. 1950 (First published in 1930), Plays, Prose Writings, And Poems by Oscar Wilde, Introduction by Hesketh Pearson, Series: Number 858 of Everyman’s Library, Section: Introduction, Quote Page xiii, Publisher: J. M. Dent & Sons, London. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1930, Letters to the Sphinx from Oscar Wilde With Reminiscences of the Author by Ada Leverson by Oscar Wilde, Limited edition of 275 copies, Quote Page 42, Duckworth, London. (Not yet verified)
  3. 1963, The Sphinx and Her Circle: A Biographical Sketch of Ada Leverson, 1862-1933 by Violet Wyndham, Reminiscences by Ada Leverson, 3: Afterwards, Quote Page 119, Vanguard Press, New York. (Verified with scans)

Don’t ASS-U-ME Anything

Oscar Wilde? Felix Unger? Tony Randall? John Glick? Clarence L. Lollar? Dick West? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Making unfounded assumptions causes endless difficulties. A clever quip highlighting this problem is based on splitting a word into three parts:

It is dangerous to assume because you might make an “ass” out of “u” and “me”.

This joke was told in a episode of the popular television sitcom “The Odd Couple” in 1973. Did the authors of the teleplay create this joke?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in a 1957 advertisement published in an Espanola, New Mexico newspaper. The advertiser was an automobile insurance provider called the Horace DeVargas Agency, but QI believes the joke was already in circulation, and the attribution should be anonymous. Boldface added to excerpts: 1

. . . I urge you, as a driver, to observe the rules of traffic and highway safety in the operation of your car.

Don’t ass-u-me anything, when you drive because, you’ll make an ass of u and me—ass-u-me.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Don’t ASS-U-ME Anything

Notes:

  1. 1957 December 26, Rio Grande Sun, (Advertisement from Horace DeVargas Agency, auto insurance company), Quote Page 10, Column 6, Espanola, New Mexico. (Newspapers_com)

I Quite Agree With You, But Who Are We Two Against So Many?

George Bernard Shaw? Oscar Wilde? Clarence Rook? Alexander Woollcott? Hesketh Pearson? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A playwright feared that his upcoming work was about to flop at the box office. After the surprisingly successful inaugural performance the bewildered playwright appeared on stage. Amongst the resounding cheers there was a barely audible hiss. The playwright addressed the lone detractor:

I quite agree with you, but what can we two do against a whole houseful of the opposite opinion?

George Bernard Shaw has received credit for this line. Would you please explore this popular anecdote?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the Chicago, Illinois periodical “The Chap-Book” in November 1896. The Latin phrase “popularis aura” means “popular favor”. Boldface has been added to excerpts by QI: 1

I well remember how at the first night of “Arms and the Man” at the Avenue Theatre, after the audience had been successively puzzled, tickled and delighted, Shaw stepped before the curtain to face the applause. He was tremulous, unnerved, speechless. He looked as though he had expected cabbage stalks, and was disappointed. Suddenly a man in the Gallery began to hoot.

Shaw was himself again at once. He opened his lips, and amid the resulting silence he said, looking at the solitary malcontent. “I quite agree with my friend in the Gallery — but what are two against so many?” A single breath of opposition braced his energies. For Shaw is like the kite, and can rise only when the popularis aura is against him.

British journalist Clarence Rook penned the passage above, and apparently he directly witnessed Shaw deliver the line. The comedy “Arms and the Man” was first staged in April 1894 in London. Thus, Rook’s description appeared two years after the event. An earlier citation may exist, but QI has not yet uncovered it.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading I Quite Agree With You, But Who Are We Two Against So Many?

Notes:

  1. 1896 November 1, The Chap-Book Semi-Monthly, Volume 5, Number 12, George Bernard Shaw by Clarence Rook, Start Page 529, Quote Page 539 and 540, Herbert S. Stone & Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link

One Man’s Poetry Is Another Man’s Poison

Oscar Wilde? Titus Lucretius Carus? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: One person may enjoy a food or activity that another person finds repellent. A well-known adage expresses this notion:

One man’s meat is another man’s poison.

The following funny variant has been attributed to the famous wit Oscar Wilde:

One man’s poetry is another man’s poison.

Did Wilde really craft this statement? Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: In 1895 the trial of The Crown versus Oscar Wilde occurred in London. Wilde was asked to comment on some verses written by his friend and companion Lord Alfred Douglas. In the following passage “Mr. Gill” referred to prosecutor Charles Gill, and “Witness” referred to Oscar Wilde. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Mr. Gill. — “You can, perhaps, understand that such verses as these would not be acceptable to the reader with an ordinarily balanced mind?”

Witness. — “I am not prepared to say. It appears to me to be a question of taste, temperament and individuality. I should say that one man’s poetry is another man’s poison!” (Loud laughter.)

The text above is from “The Trial of Oscar Wilde: From the Shorthand Reports” privately published in 1906 as a limited edition. Hence, this is not an official transcript, but it provides substantive evidence that Wilde made the remark.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading One Man’s Poetry Is Another Man’s Poison

Notes:

  1. 1906, The Trial of Oscar Wilde: From the Shorthand Reports, Limited edition number 184 of 550, Preface signed by C. G., Quote Page 58, Privately Printed, Paris, France. (HathiTrust Full View) link

I’m Not Young Enough To Know Everything

James Matthew Barrie? Oscar Wilde? Benjamin Disraeli? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Young people often reject the teachings of their elders. They believe that their understanding is superior. An older individual constructed the following ironic barb:

I am not young enough to know everything.

This statement has often been attributed to the famous Irish wit Oscar Wilde. It has also been credited to the playwright J. M. Barrie who is best known for the creation of Peter Pan. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: J. M. Barrie wrote the comic play “The Admirable Crichton” which was first produced in 1902. Barrie published the script by 1918. A character named Ernest delivered the line, and he repeated it when its humor was not fully understood: 1

LADY MARY (speaking without looking up). You impertinent boy.

ERNEST (eagerly plucking another epigram from his quiver). I knew that was it, though I don’t know everything. Agatha, I’m not young enough to know everything.
(He looks hopefully from one to another, but though they try to grasp this, his brilliance baffles them.)

AGATHA (his secret admirer) Young enough?

ERNEST (encouragingly) Don’t you see? I’m not young enough to know everything.

AGATHA I’m sure it’s awfully clever, but it’s so puzzling.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading I’m Not Young Enough To Know Everything

Notes:

  1. 1918, The Plays of J. M. Barrie: The Admirable Crichton: A Comedy, Act I, Quote Page 12 and 13, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Google Books Full View) link

The Old Believe Everything: The Middle-Aged Suspect Everything: The Young Know Everything

Oscar Wilde? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde once constructed an epigram about human knowledge and the three stages of life. I recall Wilde’s remarks about two of the stages. The arrogant young know everything, and the credulous old believe anything. Would you please help me to find this epigram?

Quote Investigator: Alfred Douglas asked Oscar Wilde to contribute to a new journal for students at the University of Oxford called “The Chameleon”. Wilde sent a collection of thirty-five witticisms which were published under the title “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young” in 1894. Here were four items. Boldface added to excerpts: 1

If one tells the truth one is sure, sooner or later, to be found out.

In examinations the foolish ask questions that the wise cannot answer.

The old believe everything: the middle-aged suspect everything: the young know everything.

Only the great masters of style ever succeed in being obscure.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Old Believe Everything: The Middle-Aged Suspect Everything: The Young Know Everything

Notes:

  1. 1894, The Chameleon, Volume 1, Number 1, Edited by John Francis Bloxam, Article: Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young by Oscar Wilde, Start Page 1, Quote Page 3, Gay and Bird, London. (British Library website; accessed bl.uk on October 28, 2020) link