Headmaster: Frank L. Boyden of Deerfield

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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 their own personalities.”...

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The Headmaster: Frank L. Boyden of Deerfield

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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 their own personalities.” More than simply a portrait of the Headmaster of Deerfield Academy, it is a revealing look at the nature of private school education in America.

A portrait of the remarkable man who founded and built Deerfield Academy into one fo the country's leading preparatory schools.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“One always has the sense with McPhee of a man at a pitch of pleasure in his work, a natural at it, finding out on behalf of the rest of us how some portion of the world works.”—Edward Hoagland, The New York Times

“A fine portrait of an individualist's individualist.” —J. G. Herzberg, The New York Times

“McPhee has produced an engaging portrait of an exceedingly engaging man.” —Alvin Beam, Cleveland Plain Dealer

“The Headmaster is a record of a lifetime's striving to create perfection—a striving conducted with zest, vision, humor and an unbelievable capacity for work.” —John McKey, The Boston Globe

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374168605
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 11/28/1966
  • Pages: 160
  • Product dimensions: 5.74 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.78 (d)

Meet the Author

John McPhee

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. Also in 1965, he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and in the years since, he has written nearly 30 books, including Oranges (1967), Coming into the Country (1977), The Control of Nature (1989), The Founding Fish (2002), Uncommon Carriers (2007), and Silk Parachute (2011). Encounters with the Archdruid (1972) and The Curve of Binding Energy (1974) were nominated for National Book Awards in the category of science. McPhee received the Award in Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977.  In 1999, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Annals of the Former World.  He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.


"John McPhee ought to be a bore," The Christian Science Monitor once observed. "With a bore's persistence he seizes a subject, shakes loose a cloud of more detail than we ever imagined we would care to hear on any subject -- yet somehow he makes the whole procedure curiously fascinating."

This is his specialty. A New Yorker writer hired in 1965 by another devil-is-in-the-details disciple, William Shawn, McPhee has taken full advantage of the magazine's commitment to long, unusual pieces and became one of the practitioners of so-called "literary journalism," joining a fraternity occupied by Tom Wolfe, Tracey Kidder, and Joan Didion. He hung on during the Tina Brown days, when the marching orders were for short and topical pieces. And the magazine's current editor, David Remnick, was once a student of McPhee's annual writing seminar at Princeton University.

The temptation is to brand McPhee a nature writer, since he spends so much of his professional life trekking through the outdoors or scribbling notes in the passenger seat of a game warden's pickup truck. But his writing isn't so easily labeled as that. Instead, he has the luxury of writing about whatever strikes his fancy, oftentimes plumbing childhood passions. In fact, his big break as a professional writer combined two of his favorite things: sports and Princeton, his home since birth. In 1965, he finally got published by The New Yorker with a profile on Princeton basketball star Bill Bradley. The piece later became his first book.

He wrote for the television program Robert Montgomery Presents in the late 1950s and was on staff at Time in the ‘50s and ‘60s, frequently pitching pieces to his dream publication,The New Yorker. That particular success eluded him until Shawn picked up the Bradley piece and then spent hours with him editing the piece the night the magazine was going to press. In a 1997 interview with Newsday, McPhee recalled that experience: "I said to him, 'This whole enterprise is going on and you're sitting here talking to me about this comma. How do you do it?' And he said, 'It takes as long as it takes.' That's the greatest answer I ever heard."

The same might be said of McPhee himself. He has written what, for many, is the definitive book on Alaska, Coming into the Country. "With this book,The New York Times said, "McPhee proves to be the most versatile journalist in America." He spent 696 pages on the geological development of North America in Annals of the Former World. He explored man's battle to tame mudslides and lava flows in The Control of Nature. He considered the birch-bark canoe in The Survival of the Bark Canoe. He caused a bit of head-scratching over the topic of his 17th book, La Place de la Concorde Suisse: the Swiss army.

The itinerary, at first blush, might not always be compelling, but in McPhee's hands, the journey is its own reward.

"Mr. McPhee is a writer's writer -- a master craftsman whom many aspirants study," The Wall Street Journal said in 1989. "For one thing, he has an engaging, distinctive voice. It is warm, understated and wry. Within a paragraph or two, he takes us into his company and makes us feel we're on an outing with an old chum. A talky old chum, to be sure, with an occasional tendency to corniness and rambling, but a cherished one nevertheless. We read his books not so much because we're thirsty for information about canoes, but because it's worth tagging along on any literary journey Mr. McPhee feels like taking."

Good To Know

The son of a doctor, McPhee credits his love of the outdoors to the 13 summers he spent at Camp Keewaydin, where his father was the camp physician.

His devotion to the perfect sentence came from a high school English teacher who assigned her students three compositions a week, an assignment that included an outline defending the composition's structure.

Bill Bradley made McPhee his daughter's godfather.

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    1. Also Known As:
      John A. McPhee
    2. Hometown:
      Princeton, New Jersey
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 8, 1931
    2. Place of Birth:
      Princeton, New Jersey
    1. Education:
      A.B., Princeton University, 1953; graduate study at Cambridge University, 1953-54
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

The Headmaster

Frank L. Boyden of Deerfield
By John McPhee

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 1992 John McPhee
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780374514969

Headmaster, The
WHEN FRANK LEAROYD BOYDEN, who was soon to become the new headmaster of Deerfield Academy, arrived at the Deerfield station, he was only twenty-two. He walked downhill into the town for the first time, and he nodded, as he moved along, to women in full-length skirts, girls in petticoats, and little boys wearing longsleeved shirts and bowler hats. Deerfield, Massachusetts, was essentially one street--a mile from the north to the south end--under shade so deep that even in the middle of the day the braided tracery of wagon ruts became lost in shadow a hundred yards from an observer. Twenty years would pass before the street would be paved, sixyears before it would be strung overhead with electric wires. Houses that had been built two hundred years earlier were the homes of farmers. Some of them tilted a little, and shingles were flaking off their roofs. Though the town was reasonably prosperous, much of it seemed slightly out of plumb. Deerfield Academy, the community's public school, was a dispiriting red brick building that appeared to have been designed to exclude as much sunlight as possible. A century earlier, there had been more than a hundred students in the academy, but now only fourteen boys and girls were enrolled for the approaching year, two of whom would constitute the senior class.In one way, this decline was not discouraging to Boyden. He wanted to put Deerfield behind him as quickly as he could, for he wanted to go to law school and eventually to enter politics. He had been graduated from Amherst two months before. He knew that the people of Deerfield had offered the headmastership to other members of his class, but he was confident that he would get the job, because he was the only person who had applied. He had no money. Deerfield would pay eight hundred dollars a year. To save enough for law school, he intended to put away nearly every cent. He knocked at the door of a white frame house that belonged to Ephraim Williams, a trustee of the academy and the great-great-grandnephew of the founder of Williams College. "Mr. Williams," he said, "I'm Frank Boyden."The day was Tuesday, August 12, 1902. The temperature outside was in the high eighties. But Ephraim Williams, a retired cavalry officer with one leg and a walrus mustache, stood in his front parlor with his back to a blistering fire. He had a shawl over one arm and a fan in one hand. He explained that he never knew when he might suffer a chill or a fever. In this atmosphere, Boyden met other trustees as well. One of them said to him, "It's a tossup whether the academy needs a new headmaster or an undertaker." They frankly did not know whether to hire him or close the school, but if he wanted the job he could have it.In the village store, meanwhile, the town loafers had been assessing Boyden's style. In the recent past, they had seen plenty of new headmasters, and this one impressed the town about as little as the town had impressed him. He was, for one thing, five feet four inches tall. With his hair parted in the middle and with rimless spectacles, he looked forbidding but hardly forceful. Boys in that part of the state had been known to pick up schoolmasters and throw them out the window. It is still remembered that one of the men in the store that day said, "It won't be very long before they drive that young man out of here." Nothing is left of that scene--not even the store itself. Up the street, however, in the white frame house that once belonged to Ephraim Williams, lives the headmaster of Deerfield Academy. He has been the headmaster for sixty-four years.During Boyden's first forty or fifty years in this position, he so concentrated on developing the character of the school that even after Deerfield had reached the highest peerage of American independent schools its students still slept in farmhouses and watched Saturday-night movies in a barn. Some New England prep schools were established in imitation of English public schools, but Deerfield is an indigenous institution. Boyden had been there twenty years before he added its boarding department, and since then he has tried not to allow Deerfield's gradual development from a local school into a national school to detach Deerfield from the advantages of its origin. The sons of rich people and of celebrated people compete to go there, and Deerfield accepts plenty of them, but it has a higher percentage of scholarship students than, for example, Andover, Exeter, Lawrenceville, Hotchkiss, Hill, Kent, Choate, Groton, St. Mark's, St. Paul's, and, for that matter, virtually every other major preparatory school. The average Deerfield scholarship is higher than the scholarships of nearly all other schools, and local boys still go to the academy for nothing. Boyden is now in a position to select his student body from among the top ten per cent of applicants, and his only competition in this respect comes from Andover and Exeter, but at first he had difficulty drawing students even from the town of Deerfield. With a borrowed horse and buggy, he went out into the fields of the surrounding Pocumtuck Valley and talkedto young farm boys until he had persuaded them to go to school. He promised them days off at harvest, and in some cases he even paid for substitute farmhands. He continued to recruit students in this way for something over twenty years, and in successive bursts of generosity he gave up much of the personal money that he had meant to save for law school. Nonetheless, he went on reading law at night, having no intention, until he was in his late forties, of making education his permanent career. His school evolved naturally, gradually, and surprisingly. He had no plan and no theory, but he proved himself to be an educator by intuition. College professors and college presidents became aware of his work and sent their sons to him. Others did the same. By the late nineteen-thirties, it had become clear that he was one of the greatest headmasters in history, and for many years he has stood alone as, in all probability, the last man of his kind.He is at the near end of a skein of magnanimous despots who--no matter whether they had actually founded the places or not--created enduring schools through their own individual energies, maintained them under their own absolute rule, and left them forever imprinted with their own personalities. At the other end is the prototype--Thomas Arnold, of Rugby. In the United States, Frank Boyden was for years the youngest in a group that included Endicott Peabody, of Groton; Father Sill, of Kent; Horace Taft, of Taft; SamuelDrury, of St. Paul's; George C. St. John, of Choate; Alfred Stearns, of Andover; and Lewis Perry, of Exeter. The rest are gone now, and in some cases their successors are, too. Meanwhile, younger headmasters in remarkable numbers have developed under Boyden at Deerfield. At the moment, the heads of twenty-nine American prep schools are former Deerfield masters or students. Some headmasters similarly trained by Boyden have served their schools and have retired. But, in his valley in western Massachusetts, Frank Boyden, who is eighty-six, continues his work with no apparent letup, sharing his authority by the thimbleful with his faculty, travelling with his athletic teams, interviewing boys and parents who are interested in the school, conducting Sunday-night vesper services, writing as many as seventy letters a day, planning the details of new buildings, meeting with boys who are going home for the weekend and reminding them of their responsibilities to "the older travelling public," careering around his campus in an electric golf cart, and working from 7 A.M. to midnight every day. If he sees a bit of paper on the ground, he jumps out of his cart and picks it up. He is uncompromising about the appearance of his school, which has, in recent years, at last developed a physical plant that is appropriate to its reputation. The new academy buildings have been developed in consonance with the eighteenth-century houses of the town, a number of which the academy has, over the years, acquired. In all, thirty-three of the town'sold houses have been preserved. Two or three are used as dormitories. The front rooms of others have been turned into shrines of the American past and the back rooms into faculty apartments. As a municipal museum, Deerfield is of the nature and importance of Williamsburg, Virginia, with the difference that the buildings of Williamsburg are for the most part replicas and the houses of Deerfield are originals.The Deerfield street is still the same quiet mile it was in 1902. Farmers still live along it. On the site of the old, sunless schoolhouse is the main building of the academy, and around and beyond it are nineteen other buildings--classrooms, dormitories, laboratories, gymnasiums, dining hall, hockey rink, infirmary, theatre, art gallery. The academy is on a kind of peninsular plateau that was formed when the Deerfield River, which flows through the valley, shifted its course in another age. On three sides, steep banks slope to a lower level, where there are perhaps seventy-five acres of athletic fields. Hills rise to the east and west, and there are long views of farmland and tobacco barns to the north and south. It would be difficult to imagine a more beautiful setting for a school or a more attractive school in the setting. What seems incredible, though, is that all of it--both the visible substance and the invisible essence of it--was developed by one man.Copyright © 1966 by John McPhee


Excerpted from The Headmaster by John McPhee Copyright © 1992 by John McPhee. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 22, 2015


    I gotta sleep continue later on.

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    He fell to his back, bulging even more. He purred with great pleasure

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