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.

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  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

I Would Rather Go To Bed With That Woman Stark Naked Than With Ulysses S. Grant in Full Military Regalia

Mark Twain? James Montgomery Flagg? William Dean Howells?

Dear Quote Investigator: When I discovered your blog I knew just the right word to describe it: Quotesmanship. That word was used in the New York Times in 1980 to describe the desire to determine and use correct attributions for quotations [NYQM]. The author of the Quotesmanship article was proud of his ability to properly give credit for quotations, but there was one saying attributed to Mark Twain that confounded him:

And nowhere to be found (by me, at least) is the dandy one that goes: “I would rather go to bed with Lillian Russell stark naked than with Ulysses S. Grant in full military regalia.”

I doubt you will be able to find these words in the corpus of Mark Twain either, but maybe you will be able to trace it to someone else.  Could you give it a try?

Quote Investigator: This quote is rather risqué for the time period of Mark Twain. Nevertheless, QI will attempt to discover something for you.

Lillian Russell was one of the most famous actresses and singers of the late 19th century. But the evidence located by QI indicates that the saying initially referred to another glamorous lady of the stage named Adelina Patti. She was an operatic superstar in the 19th century and Twain reportedly attended at least one of her performances.

Remarkably, the private notebooks of Mark Twain contain a passage about Patti written between 1889 and 1890 that is a variant of the quotation under investigation. In addition, an autobiography by the prominent illustrator James Montgomery Flagg who knew Twain personally includes an anecdote in which Twain is overheard telling the quip to a companion while attending an opera performance by the selfsame Adelina Patti.

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