Being a young person in the mid-1940s could be stressful, with World War II creating strife for every nation. In the United States every able-bodied man was being drafted into the military. Everyone else was making sacrifices for the sake of the war effort. Early 1945 was an especially uncertain time. While the end of the war seemed imminent, no one was sure how much longer it would be going on. All throughout January of that year the Utah Chronicle wrote about the rumors of a 4-F draft (that is, drafting men who originally were not considered due to minor disabilities). Meanwhile, men were coming back from the battlefields with injuries and stories of the horrors of war. This kind of tension meant that the students were looking for relief. Enter: Max Shulman.
Shulman was a journalism student at the University of Minnesota. He wrote for the Minnesota Daily (the school’s newspaper) and Ski-U-Mah (the on-campus humor journal). He soon became known on campus for his goofy sense of humor. So, it was no surprise when in 1942 he was approached by an editor to write a book poking fun at college life. Shulman agreed and a few months later produced Barefoot Boy with Cheek. (Brady, p. 32)
Barefoot Boy focuses on the adventures of Asa Hearthrug, a small-town farm boy, as he begins his college career at the “fictional” University of Minnesota. Shulman uses his famous silly sense of humor to make fun of parts of college life like fraternities (Hearthrug joins Alpha Cholera) and the troubles of dating in college (Hearthrug must choose between two girls). It touches on the prices of books, especially the ones the professors wrote themselves, and student journalists trying too hard to sound clever.
Even though Barefoot Boy soon became a national bestseller, it took a few years for it to reach Utah. Once it did, Shulman’s writing quickly captured the attention of the college crowd. The Utah Chronicle wrote in January 1945 all about the craze over the book sweeping the campus of the University of Utah. It was so popular on campus that one Utah Chronicle columnist, known in her column only as Pomerance, tried her hand at her own shortened version, which she called “Bare Faced Girl with Teeth” or “Foo to You U of U.” This parody, featured in the January 11, 1945, issue of the Chronicle, follows similar themes with the heroine dealing with Greek life (for example the fraternity Un Kappa Kega Brew) and having to choose between two boys.
The book was in high demand in the state. In October 1945, the Bear River Valley Leader wrote about the joy of the local libraries finally getting their hands on a single copy of Barefoot Boy, as did The Hillfielder in March of the same year. One group of young writers in Provo, after starting the American League of Young Penman, decided to show their love for Shulman’s writing in an interesting way. “Max Shulman, author of ‘Barefoot Boy with Cheek,’ ‘The Fatherly Merchants,’ etc., is the honorary president of the club,” the Provo Sunday Herald reported in the September 9, 1945, issue.
The absurdist humor that riddles the pages of the Barefoot Boy with Cheek appears to be just what the youth of Utah needed. It shows that a little book, no matter how silly its contents may be, can prove to be the perfect mood lightener in dark, uncertain times.
Katherine Rogers is a junior at the University of Utah, studying communication and journalism. She is also an intern at CATALYST Magazine.
Max Shulman, Barefoot Boy with Cheek (New York: American Book-Stratford Press, Inc., 1945).
“Pom Authors Sequel to ‘Barefoot Boy,’” Utah Chronicle, January 11, 1945, 2.
“Ouija Boards, ‘Barefoot Boy With Cheek’ Prove Distracting to U Students,” Utah Chronicle, January 11, 1945, 3.
“U Waits Decision On 4-F Draft,” Utah Chronicle, January 11, 1945, 4.
“Library Purchases Request Numbers,” The Hillfielder (Ogden Air Technical Services Command newspaper), March 28, 1945, 2.
“League of Young Writers Started By Provo Group,” Provo Sunday Herald, September 9, 1945, 2.
“New Books at Library,” Bear River Valley Leader, October 18, 1945, 3.
Brady, Tim. “Max Shulman. Dig it?” Minnesota Alumni Magazine, Spring 2016.