Thursday, June 23, 2011

“Going Into Nothing Without Praying”

Recently, my latest commission writing project met my desire to be a better nonfiction writer. Hired to write the history of The Governor's Academy, the oldest boarding school in New England, 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 one year, and the book is a labor of love, an homage to a beloved mentor.

Aren't all the best books labors of love? When did we get ever the idea that a biography or memoir had to be 300 pages of trash talk?


Boyden was a short (5'4"), slim, God-fearing man from Foxboro, Massachusetts, who came to Deerfield straight from Amherst College to take over a local academy down on its luck. That was 1902. Sixty-three years later, when my mother took me around to look at boarding schools, I was interviewed by Frank Boyden at Deerfield. He was 85, still running the school, still hitting fungoes to the baseball team, still stationed in his office, a chair and desk strategically placed at the entrance hall of the main school building at Deerfield, where he could take the pulse of his student body from moment to moment, as in the photo illustrating this post. Pity his son, John Boyden, director of admissions, whom I do not remember meeting.

What I notice about McPhee's nonfiction style is that it moves ever forward. Each sentence provides new information. Tell, don't dwell, seems to be the motto. The first paragraph is a fine example:

"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 long-sleeved 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, six years 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 paragraph, McPhee has introduced the three main characters: the town, the school, and the headmaster. When McPhee gets going, his pace is inexorable—fact! fact! fact! fact!—a string of information glued together by precise word choices and the very occasional figure of speech.

Boyden made $800 his first year at Deerfield and often reinvested much of his salary in the school. The school became a "monarchy," per McPhee, because, from the first day, Boyden was the school. "L'école, c'est moi!" Deerfield was his life, calling, mission. In 1907, he married his science and math teacher. As of the book's publication date, Helen Boyden had been on the faculty for 61 years, taking time out only to give birth to their three children. "She is much more important than I am," Boyden told McPhee. "I don't know that I've ever known her, really. She could have been the head of any school."

"Boyden has the gift of authority," McPhee writes. "He looks fragile, his voice is uncommanding, but people do what he says." "He has an infinite wisdom, which is aggravating as hell," Boyden's director of studies told McPhee. "But anyone knowing him well who is faced with an important decision would go to him." At the time McPhee wrote, the heads of twenty-nine American prep schools were alumni or former masters of Deerfield. I came to this book, in fact, because Edward Eames, the headmaster of the Governor's Academy from 1930 to 1959, when it was still called Governor Dummer Academy, was a Boyden protégé.

In a remarkable final chapter, McPhee follows Boyden around through "the pattern" of a school day, often riding in Boyden's ubiquitous golf cart. Up at six, Boyden prays while dressing and shaving. One member of his family said, "He goes into nothing without praying. He prays all the time. He has consummate faith that the Lord will take care of him." Boyden dictates letters leaning against the screen before a roaring fire until his wife calls him to breakfast. He may eat a piece of plain toast or (a favorite Boyden breakfast) animal crackers and root beer. Then he goes back to work.

Moving around campus throughout the day, Boyden cannot pass a stray piece of paper without picking it up and depositing it in a waste basket. He is attentive to every detail, human and inanimate. He knows each boy, he greets each visitor, as he did me 46 years ago. He is the consummate politician and fund-raiser, yet he is as attentive to a local farmer as to a founding partner of Merrill Lynch.

At midday, Boyden takes a short nap:

"Even more than fireplace fires, his naps are the essence of his mechanism, for he can go to sleep absolutely anywhere, at any time, and he can sleep soundly, if he chooses, for less than three minutes. Sometimes, while he is interviewing parents, he will press a button and his secretary will appear and say that he has a phone call. Excusing himself, he goes out, holding up the number of minutes he wants to sleep. He pulls a shawl over himself. It takes him thirty seconds to fade out. After five minutes, he is awakened. Up goes the hand again, this time with three fingers extended. Three minutes later, the secretary awakens him again. He gets up—as fresh as if he had slept through a night—and goes back to the interview. The first component of this art is that he can wash his mind free of anything at any time. Then he starts at the north end of the village and tries to remember who lives in the first house. George Lunt. Then he moves to the next house. He has never got beyond the third house. . . . "

If you can read that paragraph without a stirring of interest in Frank Boyden or this remarkable book, you should stick to science fiction. Biography, memoir, humanity—none of it is likely to interest you.

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