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

3.95  ·  Rating details ·  441 ratings  ·  52 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
Paperback, 160 pages
Published September 1st 1992 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 1966)
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3.95  · 
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 ·  441 ratings  ·  52 reviews

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Mar 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
What a great story of the most unlikely leader! Frank Boyden became headmaster at Deerfield Academy in 1902, fresh out of Amherst at 22 yrs. old and the town of Deerfield thought he wouldn't last a day. Of the 14 boys enrolled as students at Deerfield Academy, a school on its last legs and which the board of directors was seriously closing, several the town were very afraid of, and Mr. Boyden was a slight man, standing at 5' 4" and they thought he didn't stand a chance. He might not have been la ...more
Nov 25, 2007 rated it really liked it
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
Jun 14, 2010 added it
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
Sep 08, 2014 rated it liked it
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.
Sep 22, 2017 rated it really liked it
Good book that describes how Frank Boyden expanded Deerfield from a small rural school to a nationally known secondary boarding school. Boyden, who was a good headmaster, seemed more like a politician than a teacher. He was active in athletics and able to attract big donors from places like New York to build the school. Andover, Exeter and Taft Presidents donated to save the school. He was able to get donations from friends from Amherst College as well. Boyden was compassionate and only expelled ...more
Michael Crews
Nov 25, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
Sep 19, 2011 rated it did not like it
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
Nov 17, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography, education
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
Mark Wilkerson
Mar 05, 2016 rated it liked it
This book offers a quick glance at the first real impactful boarding school headmaster in the U.S. While I appreciate much that was shared in this profile, too much time is spent on the quirky habits and mannerisms of Boyden, like his incessant letter-writing habit and his love of horses, rather than on the substantive philosophies of him and his school. In covering these areas, McPhee simply dismissed Boyden's philosophy, saying Boyden never had to write down any policies and never had a real e ...more
Jul 12, 2013 rated it it was ok
"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
May 26, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: education, biography
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
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
Oct 21, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: bedtime-reading
A great little local history read for me. Make no mistake, this is definitely a time capsule read of laudatory "dead white guy history", but at its quirkiest and finest...and I found it fun! Because I currently live close to Deerfield and have read a lot of its history, this was an interesting supplement that included some surprise friends from the archives (George Sheldon, for example). Others without connection or interest to Deerfield and its academy, but who are involved in education and edu ...more
Jamie Cain
Aug 09, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: education
A light but great biography of Frank Boyden, who served as head of Deerfield for 60-odd years. The portrait drawn by John McPhee is episodic but rich--and encouraging to this headmaster! Boyden exemplified the dinosaur, and his methods would be frowned upon today (perhaps even at Deerfield). But his contention that what education required was attention to the child, and an awakening of joy for learning, still rings true. Sadly, it is not much practiced outside of the private school arena--and no ...more
Mar 03, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
May 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
A short biography of Frank Boyden, visionary head of Deerfield School. A real character captured in beautifully simple writing. Grew a school of 14 on the verge of closing to one of the best in the country over his 66 years leading the school. Remarkable. Old school head believed in sports, keeping boys busy and was a part of everything. Full of nostalgia and an interesting historical record of the area. A short read that finished too soon.
Aug 01, 2016 rated it really liked it
After that last travesty of a book, I needed an author I can count on!

Next day
That was a real joy. John McPhee always delivers. His topics, granted, are sometimes odd and always far-ranging, but it is delightful to see how many things he can make fascinating. This is the (short) tale of the life of a good man who, perhaps, didn't do vastly importantly things in the world, but he did positively affect the lives of many, many boys. Charming read.
Jan 05, 2018 rated it really liked it
Interesting short biography of Frank Boyden, the meticulously dedicated headmaster of Deerfield Academy for the better part of the 20th century. I think I would have given the book three stars if I hadn't grown up in the Pioneer Valley and spent some time in Deerfield. It was fun to read about some of the history of the Valley, and the book even touched on some stuff about UMass, where I completed undergrad. I didn't know that Boyden gym was named after him!
Dec 17, 2008 rated it did not like it

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.
Joel Schaefer
Jul 28, 2011 rated it liked it
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.
Aug 06, 2011 added it
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.
Jan 13, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
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.
Jan 31, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: humor, nonfiction
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.
Sep 11, 2011 rated it really liked it
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.
Doug Pfeffer
Jul 12, 2015 rated it liked it
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.
Brendan M.
Jul 06, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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.
Aug 19, 2012 rated it really liked it
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.
Mar 02, 2009 rated it liked it
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.
Jason Diamond
Aug 07, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I am on a McPhee kick after reading this LA Review of Books piece This was the first book I picked up and I am very glad I did.
Harry Beckwith
Feb 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Leadership and success.

So much is written about both,
and this book struck me
as a powerful and unusual story about leadership.

Boydne acccomplished moistmost of it by example,
the example being of of his utter devotion to the school.
That devotion had to have compelled everyone else
to follow that example,lest you disappoint the man.
And Boyden would never need to tell you that you had fallen short;
his example made the standard and the expectation totally clear.

That The Headmaster did all of this
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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