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The Headmaster: Frank L. Boyden of Deerfield
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The Headmaster: Frank L. Boyden of Deerfield

3.9 of 5 stars 3.90  ·  rating details  ·  288 ratings  ·  31 reviews
Starting in 1902 at a country school that had an enrollment of fourteen, Frank Boyden built an academy that has long since taken its place on a level with Andover and Exeter. Boyden, who died in 1972, was the school's headmaster for sixty-six years. John McPhee portrays a remarkable man "at the near end of a skein of magnanimous despots who...created enduring schools throu ...more
Hardcover, 160 pages
Published November 21st 1966 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 1966)
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Nov 26, 2007 Kevin rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: professional nostalgists
This is an awesome profile of longtime Deerfield headmaster Frank Boyden. Recommended especially for New Yorker enthusiasts (read: everyone I know), people who think the New Yorker is crap now but long for the pre-Conde Nast days when it was unimpeachable (read: everyone else I know), and prep-school fetishists who like repp ties and argyle. When I picked this up, I was blown away by how it reads like fiction. McPhee always reminds me of Didion in how his writing seems so straightforward but is ...more
My brother acquired this for me from his university library, as I couldn't otherwise get hold of a copy. (Anyone trying to guess my brother's discipline from his library requests would have a hard time, because of all the books he gets for me.)

It was presented in 1968 as a thank-you gift, "With best wishes and appreciation for a delightful dinner. Also to remind you of Deerfield." by someone whose name I can't decipher. It was later presented to the University by Harry Armytage, Professor of Ed
Granted, I've only read a couple of dozen pages, but I am thoroughly disappointed in this book. So far it sounds like the kind of list of pandering accolades one might hear at a retirement dinner. Every time McPhee hits about a story that would illustrate some super-human trait of Frank Boyden's, he veers off to list three more unsubstantiated kudos instead. It is below McPhee's talent and skill, at least as far as I have read. Not quite as bad as McCullough, so I'll wade through a little more o ...more
Michael Crews
In The Headmaster by John McPhee, there isn't really a general issue in the whole book, but instead the theme of nostalgia and the sense of remembering your old friends, teacher or perhaps your principal or headmaster. The whole book takes place in the college of Deerfield Academy in the 1940s in the perspective of a student or perhaps an assistant of the headmaster himself, Boyden. Throughout the book, which was published in 1966, the persona of the author tells every explicit details about th ...more
Webster Bull
Recently, my latest commission writing project met my desire to be a better nonfiction writer. I have been hired to write the history of The Governor's Academy, the oldest boarding school in New England, so I picked up a boarding school book by a non-fiction giant, John McPhee. Published in 1966, "The Headmaster" is a short biography of Frank Boyden, legendary headmaster of Deerfield (Mass.) Academy. Like much of McPhee's work it originally appeared in The New Yorker. McPhee attended Deerfield o ...more
Written with Mr. McPhee's masterful skill, this is a top-notch biography. Mr. McPhee is brilliant at being a true master of the word but not coming across as the least bit pretentious, which is very appropriate for the story of Frank Boyden, who still used to drive his horse and buggy for fun through the 1950s. Although a graduate of Amherst himself, Mr. Boyden was no snob and he went to great lengths to be sure that as Deerfield's reputation and fame grew, that the local farm boys still could g ...more
"Starting in 1902 at a country school that had an enrollment of fourteen, Frank Boyden built an academy that has long since taken its place on a level with Andover and Exeter. Boyden, who died in 1972, was the school's headmaster for sixty-six years. John McPhee portrays a remarkable man 'at the near end of a skein of magnanimous despots who ... created enduring schools through their own individual energies, maintained them under their own absolute rule, and left them forever imprinted with thei ...more
Unfortunately, I had to dock McPhee's classic biography of this old-school headmaster one star (from 5 down to 4) upon re-reading it recently.

McPhee's prose style and uncanny knack for portraiture are absolutely compelling, of course. And Mr. Boyden is a fascinating biographical subject. We surely won't see his likes in secondary education again.

The dated nature of this profile is perhaps part of its appeal. And I'm sure that histories or biographies like this make Deerfield alums immensely prou
Doug Pfeffer
This was some history of the fancy prep high school in my hometown. I didn't go there but it was a big part of the little old town, so this was interesting. Also documentation about the early 1900s in western Massachusetts was nice.
I read one essay by John McPhee almost 10 years ago and have been collecting and not-reading books by him ever since. I'm so glad I finally picked this up, and I'm ready to open some more! McPhee is funny, insightful, inspiring, and razor-sharp. He picks the details that speak volumes. I learned a lot from this book about leadership and education as well.
Ryan Boomershine
**Epically awful book cover. The author's name takes up more than 50% of the cover, the pen drawing is not representative, and there is so little remainder space that the title has to be hyphenated. In the words of the ancient prophet, "Gag me with a spoon."**

Boyden is a hoot. He shaped the school by his persistence on careful, excellent, simplicity. He was a quiet tyrant who had high expectations for everyone, beginning with himself.

I'm not sure what the author was trying to do with pages 81-10
It takes a lot to be a good teacher, but it takes so much more to be a truly great one. This is an inspiring example of one who achieved greatness and a very quick read.
Lee Yahnker
Short book but well written. Story of a headmaster that loved his school and stayed headmaster for 62 years.
Very quick read. interesting.
This portrait of Frank Boyden, headmaster at Deerfield Academy for 66 years (1902-1968) offers a lot of praise and description, but seems to be missing something to make it entirely engaging (to me with no connections to the school). McPhee is a marvelous writer and is adulatory here (he should probably have mentioned his position as a Deerfield graduate at some time) Education is in the background of this account, which is about institution building and the benignly dictatorial powers necessary ...more

I can't believe McPhee wrote this book....McPhee!

It's wordy - a wordy 110 page book? ... BY MCPHEE!?

Nothing happens in these 110 pages - but nothing usually happens in a McPhee book, but normally you learn things, and there is some description.

This feels like a hand-waving, vague, sycophantic intro to a precocious letter of recommendation that a below average writer would create for his father.

Biased, and no details.


...and I wanted to like it.
Well written account of a the long-time headmaster of Deerfield, a private school for boys in New England. The concept of a benevolent dictator appears well outlined, and the text is dated with the gender roles of the time, making it an interesting study of the time period and outlook on private education over the period from the early 1900s to the mid-sixties in middle class small town America.
McPhee captures the spirit of a fascinating and unique teacher. He knew his boys. 45 years after the fact, the Headmaster's admonition to "take a look at the hill" has finally sunk in. His legacy lives on in all the students priviledged to have known him. McPhee allows those who never got to spend time with him access to his drive and wisdom.
Joel Schaefer
A short biography of Frank Boyden of Deerfield Academy that captures the spirit of the headmaster who developed a small country day school in 1902 to a leading secondary school today. He acted as headmaster from his college graduation until well into his 80's and continued to know all the boys by name.
I read this in our first few weeks here at Deerfield and it's very insightful not just regarding Boyden but the whole educational philosophy/history. McPhee is a fantastic writer who can make even a seemingly unpromising subject interesting. A quick and informative read.
I will happily read anything by John McPhee since being introduced to him in "The New Yorker." This was as pithy as I could have wished and as well-delineated. Perhaps it was the fault of my state of mind at the time I read it that neglected to find it inspiring.
Brendan M.
There are few books whose pages I return to for guidance in how to live a principled and honorable life in pursuit of something greater than myself. This is one of them. Any student or teacher has much to learn from Frank Boyden.
Kevin A.
New Yorker profile of Frank Boyden written in the 64th year of his 66-year tenure as headmaster of Deerfield Academy. In 1966 it wasn't quite the one-man show it had been previously, but it was still very much Boyden's school.
An engaging portrait. At the end of the short book I still didn't think I really understood who Boyden was or what made him tick (other than devotion to Deerfield), but I think that might have been part of the point.
Oct 16, 2007 Chris rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: educators
I love this book, and since reading it I have changed my life and career and devoted it towards education. Frank Boyden is one of my biggest role models in life.
Nice little series of vignettes about an eccentric and powerful leader of change and culture...
Interesting if you want to know about boarding schools and leadership.
Cathy Simonds
Eh. It only gets 3 stars because McPhee writes so well. Glad it was short.
Really interesting characterization of the longtime head of Deerfield.
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John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with the New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. The same year he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with FSG, and soon followed with The Headmaster (1966), Oranges (1967), The P ...more
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