Posted by: zhiv | October 19, 2009

The Headmaster’s Papers, Richard A. Hawley

I promised a long while ago to write about my own favorite, rather obscure teacher book. And I had written out this post before I put up the last one (Two Movies for Bloggers), but that one seemed a bit more timely. At any (very slow) rate, here are some thoughts on a book that I read a few years ago. Once again, lame, I know.

I don’t have a rule about not writing about books that I haven’t read recently, but maybe I should. I enjoyed reading John McPhee’s The Headmaster back in early August, and felt comfortable reviewing a sampler of teacher books that came to mind. A couple of quick recommendations to read Stoner came back, and I have to go get it and put it on the stack, which hasn’t been moving much these days. I started the last review with the idea that I would write about what I called my own favorite teacher book, but it became a longer consideration and I never made it to the intended topic. And then my blogging fell off once again, going back into sleep mode as it has been doing since the beginning of summer. There are reasons for all of this, which I may get into at some point, but for now I want to continue on with baby steps, and finish the short simple task that was most recently left undone.

But I can’t say that I feel comfortable about it, as I have only a vague recollection of this book, my presumptive favorite, The Headmaster’s Papers by Richard A. Hawley. If I was a better reader and blogger I would reread it. But I remember reading it greedily at the time and being moved by it. It’s very sad. One of the important things I remember is the way that it is set in time, as it tells the story of a well-meaning headmaster who is trying to run a school during the tumultuous 60s. His wife gets sick with cancer and eventually dies, and he despairs as he watches his students get high and do drugs and reject conformity in the name of some vague sense of freedom. His expectations and standards are under constant attack. The heartbreaking part is that his own son has left, and he’s out wandering the world in the hippie manner of James Michener’s The Searchers (don’t hear much about Michener these days), if I recall that book correctly. Headmaster John Greeve tries to find and get information on his son, to tell him about his mother’s ilness and death, but his son has disappeared into the drug world of Spain and Morocco. Greeve realizes he will never know his son’s exact fate, but he has to give up and assume that he too is dead. Unable to function and hopeless, unable to perform his old job and manage this new generation of teenagers, this epistolary novel ends with a suicide note.

This book was a random choice at a bookstore years ago, but it had a couple of things going for it. It has an evocative cover, a dark shadow on a campus green, with a photo of a stately, classic school building inset in the middle. Below the title it says “Introduction by John Irving,” and this copy is the 2002 “Classic” edition, with Irving’s introduction and “an afterword by the Author.” It is a small press book, published by “Paul S. Eriksson, Publisher/Forest Dale, Vermont,” and the left corner of back cover shows Eriksson’s PO Box and zipcode. It looks like the book has gone through five different editions. On the copyright page it says that “grateful acknowledgment is made to John Irving for permission o use as an introduction his article about The Headmaster’s Papers for Lost Classics, an Anchor Books ttle edited by Michael Ondaatje and others in a gathering of pieces by well known writers discussing books they loved but felt had been underread, overlooked, or lost.” I cant say for sure, but the short Irving introduction might have been the deciding factor in making me notice the book, buy it, and read it, though it’s not as if I’m a huge Irving fan.

I often wish, and it seems to be an even stronger desire lately, that I had any discernable basic impulse to reread books. Instead I have a weird block and aversion against it, one I can’t really understand. It seems like work and extra difficulty, rather than pleasure. I know that before writing this I should start rereading this book and then I might actually have something interesting to say about it. I remember it as heartfelt and compelling and simple and devastating. I remember it as a singular perspective and portrait of a tumultuous time, a period that I went through as a young student myself. I like obscure, good, “lost classics” very much, and for now I think of this as my favorite teacher/school book. But I’ll try to reread it and get a better handle on the reasons and the details, and go get my copy of Stoner too.


  1. I’ve really enjoyed your blog. Have you read “The Rector of Justin” by Louis Auchincloss? I read it when it first came out (admittedly I was very young) and found it enchanting and addictive.

  2. If you would like a more light-hearted story about a boarding school, you might try “And Gladly Teach,” a humorous/satirical account written by a teacher (me).

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