No man need bother writing his friend's biography—or his enemy's. It will be a bad biography for the main and simple reason (as Penrod would say) that no man is a judge in his own cause (as Aristotle would say).
Both the biographer and the biographee may come off miserably, and one of them must. For men appear better to their friends and worse to their enemies than a man could possibly be, and the author ineluctably accents the wonders of the friend, the warts of the enemy. The closer he approaches his subject, the closer he approaches himself. The instinct for the jugular—to attack or defend it—is nothing to the instinct for the ego.
In the instant case the biographer assures himself that the difficulty is not all that insuperable. Loving his neighbor as himself, he sees himself in his neighbor; and knowing himself for a sinner, he knows his neighbor likewise. You don't have to know a man "intimately"—a close-mouthed man—to know him intimately; thirty or forty years of close-mouthed association will do it. And what you come to know is especially gratifying when what you come to know is a celebrated man and, especially, a celebrated man who sits gray-eyed in judgment on you. Why, he is no better, or not all that much better, than I am—a poor consolation, but mine own. Thus the instant biographee, that gray-eyed celebrity, is, at (or near) bottom, bad. . . . If only you knew him as I did. . . .
One of Hutchins' bosom friends liked (and badly needed) to refer to him (out of his presence, of course) as Old Clayfoot. (He was careful to attribute the appellation to another close friend—lest, like everything else, it got back to the subject.) Old Clayfoot he was, Young Clayfoot he had been. The view that Machiavelli wound up with (and Calvin began with)—namely, that men are bad—seems to have some persistent validity. If men are bad, and Hutchins was a man, it follows, as the conclusion from
the premises major and minor, that he was a bad man even though he himself said he was.
Demigodliness is not the same as goodliness, and the demigods get no credit for having got that way. Bob Hutchins was not the very best man I have known, not by a long shot (nor yet the very worst, by a longer shot still). But he was the only great man I knew both well and long. I knew him well enough and long enough to know that he was a great man who wanted to be good—and got greater. But not as great as he would have got had such goodness as he had had permitted him (as we say these days) to stroke the right people. Oberlin—Oberlin and morning prayer, Oberlin and the picture on the piano, Oberlin and the martyr's arch, Oberlin and the code of morals—Oberlin pulled him down every time he came within sight of the summit of the kingdoms of this world, the summit that so many people who didn't know Oberlin said he'd achieve in an easy lope.
The best that I can say for him, and I say it now, is that he was of all the men I have known, the most penetrating and the most perceptive and, of all the men I have known, the best polemicist (far and away), the best memoried and the best mannered, the most implacably driven and the most implacably dogged, the most gluttonous for punishment, and, withal, the most engaging and the boonest of long-term companions. That these qualities one and all are only relatively creditable, I know. I know, too, that they do not, all of them together, add up to a man's being any good. But they were the only qualities he had in cornucopic quantity, and in a man who never had time to lift his head from the fleshpots or bow it in meditation the combination was perhaps unexampled.
Well (as Gertrude Stein would say). Or (as John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton, did in fact say, if only people would hear him out to the end), "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."
It must be difficult to be both preeminently preeminent and preeminently good. It may actually be more difficult to be good than great. And it must be herculean to be any good at all when greatness is the evident consequence of being inordinately tall and handsome and inordinately glib and of having an inordinate father, who, while you were still impressionable, got you up early in the morning and transported you to Oberlin.
It would seem to follow, if nothing but good should be spoken of the dead, that all their evil should be spoken of the living, since men are pretty generally a nice balance of the two and, under the nil nisi bonum rule, the balance has got to be struck sooner rather than later.
Well. Here was a man who spoke all his evil of himself.