Austin Porterfield (1896-1979)
Bill Long 9/25/05
An Exploration into Sociology's History
Friend Leonard Cain sent me a copy this week of his latest book: a biography of his former teacher and mentor in sociology at Texas Christian University, Austin Porterfield.*
[*The book is provocatively entitled A Man's Grasp Should Exceed His Reach: A Biography of Sociologist Austin Larimore Porterfield (University Press of America, 2005)]
Porterfield was, in large measure, the Department of Sociology during his 29-year tenure at TCU (1937-66), and Leonard studied with him between 1945-49 while Leonard was on the GI Bill after his service in WWII. I have read only a few chapters of the book, but am so excited by its direction and the ground-breaking knowledge it communicates that I have to give this "interim" report. Before getting to a brief summary/comment on what I have read so far, however, I want to make two comments that show some of the context in which I approach such a book.
Two Preliminary Observations
My first comment arises from the perspective of my knowledge of and relationship with Leonard. Leonard wrote this book in his retirement, beginning his research on his teacher when Leonard was more than 70 years old. The only other person who crossed my path in a special way who had done something like this is the late Robert Clark, former President of the University of Oregon (who died at 95 earlier this year), who began research and then wrote a 500-page biography of pioneer Oregon geologist Thomas Condon after his retirement. Both Clark and Cain finished their illiminating and exhaustively-researched biographies when they were 80.
When Clark's book came out, I was interim pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Portland (1988-89) and, because of the recent rise of Fundamentalism, was thinking a lot about issues relating to evolution and Christian faith. Thus, Clark's biography of Condon, a Congregational minister who was also a committed Darwinist and paleontologist, came to me at a perfect time. I corresponded with Dr. Clark, and he sent me a letter exuding the generosity of spirit and kindliness for which he was widely known.
Now, Leonard's biography has come to me and, again, at a wonderful time. I had been wondering for years about why certain disciplines in the social sciences (especially psychology, sociology and anthropology) were not as aware of their history as disciplines and the men who shaped the field as were other disciplines and, in fact, why few detailed biographical works about scholars other than the most seminal figures in the field had not been written. I think that the pressure on younger scholars these days is to produce new work, to try to build off theories and problems to which they were exposed in graduate school and not to try to develop a perspective on the field and people who defined the field. Indeed, perhaps scholars younger than 50 are not in any position to write a biography of another since they themselves have not reflected deeply on the way their own biography both frees and limits them. In addition, there is often little benefit in writing a biography of someone whose method, more than likely, were primitive and whose data was spotty.
Thus, I am developing in my mind "Long's rule for biographical writing," when it has to do with subjects other than the "obvious" subjects of biographies. Long's rule: wait until a potential biographer has lived 65 years, has developed his/her expertise in and contributed to a field, and has given considerable thought to the human condition. Then, s/he may be self-aware enough and mature enough to take on the task of writing the life of what we might call a '2nd tier' scholar--one who was significant in shaping a field but whose name is not "up there" with the luminaries. And, what we may just find is that the stories of these '2nd tier' scholars may do more, or as much, to deepen our understanding of the field and its history, and of the human condition than anything written about the field's "stars."
A Seond Observation
Before determining if this "rule" has anything to commend it with respect to Leonard Cain and Austin Porterfield, I add a second experience. Long ago, when I was a professor in biblical studies and wanted to make a "mark" on that field (in the mid-1980s), I recall talking to a colleague who had moved from a college in Oregon to Fort Worth, TX, to take up a position as a professor of New Testament at Brite Divinity School at TCU. He was a well-trained scholar and fit very nicely into the general higher-critical flavor of NT scholarship of the day.* I remembered the name (Brite)
[*Time would fail me to explain this statement in detail. Suffice it to say that American NT scholarship was strongly shaped, until the 1990s, by German scholarship and especially that coming out of Tuebingen in the 19th Century and Marburg and Gottingen in the first half of the 20th century. This scholarship was anathema to American Fundamentalists because it not only questioned the assumptions of an inspired Scripture but concluded that Jesus was more of a shadowy historical figure than the NT seemed to indicate.]
but thought that the school probably was named after someone whom history had long forgotten. Thanks to Leonard Cain, however, as I will show in the next essay, Brite was a real life person whose actions around 1910 indirectly shaped the way that Porterfield probably looked on his work and role at TCU beginning in 1937.
So, with these introductory comments, let's now move to the book itself.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long