- A Man's Grasp Should Exceed His Reach: A Biography of Sociologist Austin Larimore Porterfield
Leonard Cain's biography chronicles the life of Austin L. Porterfield, a noted sociologist at Texas Christian University between 1937 and 1966. Cain, a graduate of TCU, has painstakingly compiled a thorough history of his former mentor and has produced a work that not only covers the major events of Porterfield's life but also reveals a great deal about the early history of sociology during the twentieth century. Using the personal correspondence of Porterfield's family, friends, and former students, Cain traces the professor's humble upbringing in Arkansas, his service in World War I, his early career as a Disciples of Christ minister, his years as a TCU sociology professor, and his post-retirement years.
While at TCU, Porterfield became a pioneer of scientific sociology and pursued a greater understanding of the fields related to family relations, criminology,and juvenile delinquency. According to the author, Porterfield's crowning achievement was the founding of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, the official publication of the American Sociological Association. With the founding of this national journal, [End Page 431] Porterfield succeeded in legitimizing the study of medical sociology. Cain also discusses at length Porterfield's scholarly writings, which included the publication of eleven books and more than fifty articles, an amazing achievement considering that he taught an average of five courses per semester during his tenure at TCU.
According to the reminiscence of former graduate students, Porterfield was an exemplary educator. Representative of their memories, one student recalled, "Dr. Porterfield loved teaching. He was exciting and exuberant in the classroom. . . . He was always involved in research and writing projects and these interests often overflowed in his classes. . . . He usually lectured without notes and his memory was remarkable." The same student commented, "Dr. Porterfield had one major weakness as a teacher. He always assigned term papers, but he hated grading papers and exams and procrastinated doing so" (p. 76).
Cain's work contains a wealth of information for sociology students, but most historians will find the format of his book somewhat problematic. A Man's Grasp Should Exceed His Reach reads more like an edited source book than a biography. The study is broken up into snippets of Porterfield's life and career and lacks the consistency and flow of a traditional historical narrative. As a result, the author takes his readers on a roller coaster ride that carries them through the twists and turns of long block quotes taken from the personal letters, student recollections, and Porterfield's own articles and books. While most historians agree that it is necessary to allow the participants of the past tell their history as much as possible, Cain practices this methodology to a fault. In addition, he tends to stray from the focus of his study at times. For example, he devotes an entire chapter to the development of the field of sociology at TCU prior to Porterfield's arrival, a task that should have been summarized in two or three pages. Furthermore, Cain includes more than one hundred pages of appendices that covers topics such Porterfield's curriculum vitae, titles listed in his vitae but not located, a list of unpublished manuscripts, citations of Porterfield's publications between 1966–1995, master's theses in sociology at TCU, 1917–1972, samples of Porterfield's poetry, and more. Because the author adequately coverers most of this information within the body of his work, readers will find the appendices redundant. Nevertheless, despite these flaws, Cain's work should prove to be a valuable resource tool for scholars researching the academic development of the field of sociology and for those conducting further research on the life and career of Austin L. Porterfield.