Posted by: zhiv | August 16, 2009

The Headmaster, John McPhee

Not sure how or when my blogging and reading went off the rails, and I’ll probably keep apologizing and explaining it in dribs and drabs until I can build some momentum back up. There was a funny coincidence, however, the other day, one that seems worthy of a comeback post.

I was buying some books at my local library store and grabbed a nice (cheap) newer edition of John McPhee’s second book, The Headmaster. It was the perfect short sidetrack read, and just as I was finishing it I saw a short post over at one of the basketball sites where I spend too much time, a post about McPhee’s first book, his profile of Bill Bradley.

It made me think about McPhee and want to consider his work in a broader sense.

I had read The Headmaster before, I think, many years ago, along with most of McPhee’s other early and middle works. In many ways he’s an ideal writer for my tastes, primarily in his subject matter but also his graceful, eminently readable style. I suppose it could be dismissed as standard New Yorker style, but what he accomplished in these books is much harder than it looks, and navigating through the 60s and 70s with any sort of clarity and pose was hard enough. I would definitely be interested to see a truly knowledgable, deeply considered treatment of McPhee’s work, and the 50-year mark since his first publication is approaching–it’s not for another 5 or 6 years, but still: that’s a long time, and he had written a lot of good books. So I’ll have to look around for some writing about McPhee.

I find it extremely interesting to look at these early books now, with some perspective, as a way of starting out as a writer. He’s writing non-fiction, of course, a sort of higher journalism that crosses over from magazine writing into essays and biography. I come back to the idea that it’s harder than it looks, and that starts with the choice of subject matter for a young writer, which is what McPhee obviously was when he wrote these books. Coming out of Princeton in the early 60s had its own substantial cachet, of course, and the conflicts of the era were just starting to emerge. There’s something about recognizing an incandescent character like Bill Bradley as a writing subject when he’s in your midst, and then the execution presents all sorts of challenges as well. Then, as a ball player like Bradley or any number of writers can tell you, there’s the difficulty of being a sophomore, which is an interesting enough topic to consider all on its own. That gets me to the book at hand, The Headmaster, and Frank Boyden as a choice of subject matter.

It probably just boils down to “write what you know.” But McPhee’s early works still seems to be a perfect primer for the writing of “creative non-fiction,” and one way to build a writing “practice,” as we yoga enthusiasts like to say, and career. He writes about his own college years and ethos through Bradley, and then goes back as a working writer, to write about his prep school. How many thousands of writers have written or tried to write about the same subjects in autobiographical fiction? By using objectivity and fact and retainng all of the benefit of character in Bradley and Boyden, McPhee creates a foundation out of his subjects, with his style an overlay of simplicity. You could do a lot worse than assiging these two books and more in a creative non-fiction course, or for a young person to read them as a way to think about what to write.

For me, the way that they mark a way to write about both sports and life at the same time is also quite interesting. I feels a great natural affinity with McPhee, having come to writing and literature somehow through sports. It seems odd and convoluted, but it’s probably a more common precess than one would think. It’s a turn on the Hemingway and Fitzgerald model. McPhee actually lays out cerain elements of the process in The Headmaster. In writing about Boyden and Deerfield he’s creating a prism for viewing a common American adolescence. Boyden emerges as an original proponent of the conjunction of sports and learning. McPhee creates a quaint potrait of Boyden arriving at the school in the Pioneer Valley horse-and-buggy simplicity of the turn of the century, building the school up organically from the most meagre materials, all filtered through his own personality, and performing in a role as a player on the Academy’s sports teams all the way into the 30s.

One of my interests as a mid-life blogger is to note the passage of time by decades that seem to flow past more swiftly somehow. McPhee, writing 45 years ago but well within memory, himself writes about a living relic, an extraordinary man in his 80s who had spent over 60 years building an important academic institution. In doing so he had shaped a region, a state, and generations in his own way. Boyden was clearly shaken deeply by the death of at least one student in World War 1, and there must have been many more sad outcomes over the course of the century. I used to think about my own grandparents as young adolescents during WW1, and remember asking my grandmothers what it was like then and in the 20s and then raising kids druing the Depression. McPhee writes a book about an old man who obviously played an important role in shaping his own life, and he studies the web of years and influence, the growth and continuing life of a school. And through Boyden and telling his story in a straightforward, clean fashion, McPhee is able to reach into history, going deep into the past with a graceful, unmannered grasp. His process is a lot like the way that Bill Bradley played basketball, and that’s probably not an accident. Maybe Bill Bradley taught John McPhee some important writing lessions, ones that we can all study and appreciate.

I’m studying and thinking about books about schools and teachers these days–I probably should be working on a list and breaking it all down. The Headmaster is a very good one, and it was a satisfying, easy read. More McPhee, please.



  1. Have you STONER by John Williams? It is the best novel about a teacher that I know.

  2. I have recently read Stoner and was thinking of it also as I read zhiv’s post. I found it unbearably sad, in parts unbelievably so, but very beautiful especially the first half. I haven’t read any McPhee but found this an interesting post. Thinking about sports and writing also brought to mind R. Ford’s The Sportswriter.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: