An Acre of Performance Is Worth the Whole Land of Promise

William Dean Howells? James Howell? Red Auerbach? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Promises are easy to make and easy to break. Only actual conduct and achievements produce a reliable record of behavior. A popular figurative statement succinctly expresses this idea:

An acre of performance is worth a whole world of promise.

These words have been attributed to the prominent literary figure William Dean Howells and the famous basketball coach Red Auerbach. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared long before William Dean Howells and Red Auerbach were born. The British historian James Howell employed the saying in a letter he sent to a correspondent in Antwerp that was published in a 1655 collection. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

An acre of performance is worth the whole Land of promise; Besides, as the Italian hath it, Deeds are men, and words women: you pleas’d to promise me when you shook hands with England to barter Letters with me; But wheras I writ to you a good while since by Mr. Simons, I have not receiv’d syllable from you ever since.

Howell used the poetically resonant phrase “Land of promise” instead of the prosaic “world of promise”. He also included a sexist adage.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In September 1874 a newspaper in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania printed an instance without attribution using the phrase “world full of promise”: 2

Remember, Republicans, that an acre of performance is worth a whole world full of promise.

In October 1874 a newspaper in Cambridge City, Indiana provided a single name attribution: “Howell”: 3

An acre of performance is worth a whole world full of promise.—Howell.

In 1890 a newspaper in Little Rock, Arkansas printed the saying in a column of aphorisms. The phrase “world of promise” replaced “world full of promise”. In addition, a crucial change occurred in the attribution: “Howells” replaced “Howell”: 4

An acre of performance is worth the whole world of promise.—Howells.

The connection to James Howell was not forgotten. For example, in 1899 a newspaper in Hamilton, Ohio credited “Howell” although the wording differed from the original 1655 version: 5

An acre of performance is worth the whole world of promise.—Howell.

In 1911 a newspaper in Asbury Park, New Jersey attributed the saying to “W. D. Howells”: 6

An acre of performance is worth a whole world of promise.—W. D. Howells.

The initials and name corresponded to William Dean Howells who was the editor of the prominent publication “The Atlantic Monthly”. He was also a novelist and critic who lived between 1837 and 1920. Interestingly, QI believes that the ascription of the saying to Howells was probably a mistake. The phrasing of the 1655 quotation evolved, and the new statement was reassigned because of confusion between the similar names “Howell” and “Howells”.

In 1924 the saying appeared in a furniture store advertisement in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: 7

William Dean Howells said that an acre of performance was worth a whole world of promise. Here in the Van Sciver store there is acre after acre of Furniture.

In 1949 “The Home Book of Quotations: Classical and Modern” edited by Burton Stevenson included an accurate entry for the quotation with a proper ascription and citation: 8

An acre of performance is worth the whole Land of Promise.
JAMES HOWELL, Familiar Letters. Bk. iv, 33.

Red Auerbach spent 60 years in the National Basketball Association as a coach and an executive. Most of those years were with the very successful Boston Celtics franchise. Several articles of remembrance published when he died in 2006 credited him with the saying: 9

In later years, Auerbach decried the enormous salaries and bonuses commanded by All-American college players who are drafted by pro teams. As he put it, “An acre of performance is worth a whole world of promise.”

In conclusion, James Howell should be credited with the quotation he wrote that was published in 1655. The ascription to William Dean Howells was flawed. He probably never said it or wrote it. Red Auerbach may have employed an instance after it had been circulating for a few hundred years.

Image Notes: Illustration of oxen plowing a field is from a medieval manuscript available via Project Gutenberg.Portrait of James Howell circa 1641 via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Mardy Grothe whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Grothe is the author of several valuable quotation books including the forthcoming opus “Metaphors Be With You”. His website is located here.

Notes:

  1. 1655, Epistolae Ho-Elianae: A Fourth Volume of Familiar Letters Upon Various Emergent Occasions Partly Philosophical, Political, Historical by James Howell (Clerk of the Councell to his late Majestie, Letter: 33, From: James Howell, To: Mr. R. Lee in Antwerp, Location: London, Date: November 9, Quote Page 75, Printed for Humphrey Moseley, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1874 September 22, The Pittsburgh Commercial, General and Particular, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1874 October 8, The Cambridge City Tribune, Multum in Parvo, Quote Page 1, Column 5, Cambridge City, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1890 November 14, Arkansas Democrat, Aphorisms, Quote Page 1, Column 6, Little Rock, Arkansas. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1899 October 6, The Republican-News (The Journal News), Pearls of Wisdom, Quote Page 12, Column 4, Hamilton, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1911 January 7, Asbury Park Evening Press, Literature, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Asbury Park, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1924 July 23, The Philadelphia Inquirer (Advertisement for Van Sciver Furniture store), Quote Page 6, Column 5, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1949, The Home Book of Quotations: Classical and Modern, Selected by Burton Stevenson, Sixth Edition, Topic: Words, Quote Page 2228, Dodd, Mead and Company, New York. (Internet Archive at archive.org)
  9. 2006 October 29, The Washington Times, Section: Sports, Auerbach dies of heart attack – Celtics legend won nine titles, Author: Dick Heller, Quote Page C01, Washington D.C. (NewsBank Access World News)