November 10, 2013
My last job in the U.S., from 1970 to 1973, was at Exposition Press, the second-largest vanity press at the time. A vanity press is a book publisher that will publish anybody’s book for a price. Vanity presses — which largely don’t exist any more — are remembered as borderline scams that published rotten books. This is not entirely accurate. During my tenure at Exposition Press, we published some very good books — almost all non-fiction. We had only one fiction writer who was extremely talented. His name was Edwin Mumford. There is virtually nothing about him on the Internet. He was one of the best American writers who never rose out of obscurity.
Edwin Mumford was from California. He was the son of college professors. He was an ex-mental patient who had been hospitalized for paranoia. He had already published several books with Exposition before I came aboard, and a comment or two had fallen in my ears that he was the best fiction writer Exposition Press ever had. All of his books dealt with mental illness. I believe he had written three autobiographical novels already. Two of them were Journey With A Cross and Michael; and I recall vaguely that another had a title something like Diary of a Paranoiac. After the novels, he published several satirical novelettes featuring a heroic rabbit named Snooksie, who was a kind of rebel hero for mental patients.
I shared a cubicle with an older gentleman named Frank Lewis, who had once written a best-selling children’s book called Kerry, The Fire Engine Dog (Rand, McNally). Frank and I shared a passion for crackpotism and bad writing, so we had the best jobs in the world — reading manuscripts at Exposition Press. At any given time, one of us could be heard chuckling over a manuscript by some unknown writer who had no idea that he was writing unintentional humor that could not be matched by any good writer trying to be funny. Frank had been at Exposition for many years, and he knew books. “We’ve got one good fiction author — Edwin Mumford. You should read him.” So I got a copy of Journey With A Cross from the stockroom and read it. I loved it. I thought, here’s a writer who really deserves some kind of boost. He’s so talented.
Vanity presses do very little in the way of promotion — one tiny newspaper ad and fifty or so review copies that no one will bother to read. Fiction from vanity presses does not sell. Nobody pays any attention to it, and bookstores won’t waste shelf space on it.
Edwin Mumford did not seem to be particularly concerned about success. He just wanted to write. His parents indulged his avocation and gave him money, and he published a book with Exposition about once a year.
One of my duties was writing jacket blurbs, and I was excellent at it. I had never written one for Ed Mumford, but finally the day came when a set of his galley proofs landed on my desk. “Hey, I’ve got Ed Mumford’s latest book,” I said to Frank Lewis. “I really like this guy. I want to do something good for him.”
“You should,” agreed Frank.
“His other jacket blurbs were just okay. I’m going to do something really great.”
“I’m sure you can.”
Mumford’s story took place in a mental hospital. The patients were plotting to rebel against the evil Yellowheads, who were the administrators. The rebellion was on the verge of collapsing when Snooksie, the heroic rabbit, intervened to lead the patients to victory. It was a clever story. I wrote a spectacular jacket blurb for it. It was a rocket. It sizzled. I delivered it to the chief copy editor and expected something good to come of it. The blurb would be sent to Mumford for his approval.
About ten days later, Frank Lewis strode into the cubicle, laughing. He had just come out of Ed Uhlan’s office. Edward Uhlan was the Publisher, infamously known as “The Rogue of Publisher’s Row.” He was a lovable con artist, a shameless liar, and he had a mercurial personality, hiring and firing people unpredictably. But he adored Frank Lewis, and for some strange reason he liked me, too.
“Guess who Ed was just talking to,” said Frank.
“Ed Mumford. He called long-distance from California.”
“Ed Mumford! What did he say?”
“Remember that jacket blurb you wrote for him?”
“He said it was the best blurb anyone had ever written for one of his books. And he wanted to know who wrote it.”
“And Ed said that he wrote it himself.”
“What! He took credit for my blurb?”
I was outraged. But Frank was not at all surprised. He knew Ed Uhlan too well. Uhlan wouldn’t pass up a chance to magnify himself. Frank thought the whole thing was funny and he advised me just to forget about it.
I don’t remember the title of that book, unfortunately, but it would have appeared in ’72 or ’73. The last words of the blurb were: “Who is Number One? Snooksie!”
I no longer own any of Mumford’s books. The only one I brought to Canada with me was Journey With A Cross, which I donated to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library of the University of Toronto.
Ed Uhlan and Frank Lewis are both long-dead. They have their little chunks of immortality, though less than they deserve, in my opinion. Edwin Mumford is probably dead, too, although I don’t know it for a fact. This little memoir is his bit of immortality, though he deserves more, too.
As for my immortality, please let’s not discuss it.
Copyright@ 2013 by Crad Kilodney. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Reminder: my French book, Villes Bigrement Exotiques, is still in print. Published by Le Dilettante (Paris).