One of the most appealing things for me about Robert Graves, the English author and poet who lived for most of his life in Deià, was his compelling ability to mythologise about himself and everything else. So, I was delighted when I discovered that Grevel Lindop had uncovered the true story of the fate of the three publishers who encountered the manuscript of Graves’s extraordinary book The White Goddess before it was published.
Grevel Lindop is an English poet, writer and critic. He wrote the introduction to the 1999 Carcanet edition of The White Goddess. Grevel describes the book as a study of ‘the language of poetic myth…a magical language bound up with popular religious ceremonies in honour of the Moon goddess, or Muse’.
According to Grevel, this appears at first to be the ‘tallest of all Robert Graves’s tales’. The poet told the story when he gave a lecture in New York in February 1957.
Graves explained, ‘I offered The White Goddess in turn to the only publishers I knew who claimed to be personally connected with poetry and mythology. The first regretted that he could not recommend this unusual book to his partners, because of the expense. He died of heart failure within the month. The second wrote very discourteously, to the effect that he could not make either head or tail of the book, and could not believe it would interest anyone. He died too, soon afterwards. But the third, who was T. S. Eliot, wrote that it must be published at all costs. So he did publish it, and not only got his money back, but pretty soon was rewarded with the Order of Merit, the Nobel Prize for Literature, and a smash hit on Broadway.’
Graves went on to say, ‘Very well, call these coincidences. But I beg you not to laugh yet! Wait! I beg you not to laugh, unless you can explain just why the second publisher should have dressed himself up in a woman’s panties and bra one afternoon, and hanged himself from a tree in his garden. (Unfortunately, the brief report in Time did not specify the sort of tree.) Was that a blind act of God, or was it a calculated act of Goddess? I leave the answer to you; all I know is that it seemed to me natural enough in its horrid way.’
Graves’s biographers have dismissed the story as a fantasy, and perhaps the magus himself spinning some suitably magical PR for the book. Grevel’s research has proved otherwise.
Before we go on, it’s important to emphasise how important The White Goddess was for Graves. As Grevel puts it, ‘it was essentially Graves’s poetic testament…an inspired text, almost the Gospel of the Goddess. It was quite literally the Key to all Mythologies, and it was certainly the key to his own life, as well as an explanation of everything that was wrong with the modern world. It was his testament, and he wanted the world to read it.’
T.S. Eliot, a director of Faber and Faber, certainly appreciated The White Goddess. As well as urging that the book be published, he wrote a blurb for the Faber edition that began ‘This is a prodigious, monstrous, stupefying, indescribable book; the outcome of vast reading and curious researches into strange territories of folk-lore, religion and magic.’
The most intriguing players in the story are, of course, the two publishers who turned the book down. While researching into the Graves archives in Mallorca, Grevel followed up a hunch based on his interest in the poet, novelist and magician Charles Williams. Grevel is the author of Charles Williams: The Third Inkling, a biography of Williams. It occurred to Grevel that Williams’s unexpected death in 1945 would, as he says, ‘fit the story neatly’.
Williams was indeed the second publisher. He was keen to publish The White Goddess, which he described as a ‘thrilling description of the way the poetic mind works, and very valuable on that account…I do very profoundly regret that we can’t do it. I have said all this here, and pressed it as far as I can.’
Charles Williams died during an emergency operation for a stomach complaint – which presumably brought on heart failure – on 15 May 1945, just under ten months after he’d reluctantly rejected The White Goddess.
Two down, one to go. The fate of the third publisher is certainly the stuff of lurid thrillers. Establishing his identity involved some serious literary sleuthing. It occurred to Grevel that Graves might have been referring to the New York Times and not Time magazine. He recruited his friend, De Quincey scholar Chuck Rzepka, to search the archives of the New York Times for him. Rzepka found a tiny paragraph in the Times for July 20, 1946: ‘Publishing Executive Found Dead’.
That publishing executive was Alexander J. Blanton, a vice president of Macmillan, who had rejected The White Goddess. Dr Amos O. Squire, Westchester medical examiner, listed the death as a ‘suicide while mentally disturbed.’
The inevitable next question for Grevel was: what was Blanton wearing? Through an incredible stroke of good fortune, Grevel was in touch with a retired American philosophy professor named Raymond Polin. Grevel mentioned his mission to unravel the mystery of the three publishers to Polin. Polin said ‘My son is an attorney. I’ll ask him to make a Freedom of Information request and get the medical examiner’s report.’
When the medical examiner’s report came through, it turned out be absolutely true that Blanton had been found dressed in woman’s clothes. As to the question of how Graves knew the inside story, Grevel believes that he was sent the clipping about Blanton’s death by his friend Tom Matthews, a managing editor at Time magazine. As Grevel says, ‘it would have been easy to confuse the Times with Time, where his friend worked’.
Whether he believed it was down to the power of The White Goddess or not, Graves clearly relished the story of the fate of the three publishers. (I wonder how many literary figures of Graves’s statue in the 1950s would have thought to tell a story like that?)
Apart from the unnerving short stories ‘The Shout’ and ‘She Landed Yesterday’, there’s very little of the uncanny in Graves’s fiction. I was curious as to what he thought about magic.
‘He claimed to have little interest in it,’ Grevel told me. In The White Goddess, he wrote “I am no mystic. I avoid participation in witchcraft, spiritualism, yoga, fortune-telling, automatic writing and the like.” But, in reality, things weren’t so simple. He was quite ready to advise other people on magical activity – for example, he gave detailed advice to childless friends wanting to have a baby (it included making particular offerings to the Goddess, clearing rubbish from their house, listening to certain music and so on). He would pay homage to the new moon when he saw it. He told Colin Wilson that about one person in twenty has paranormal powers. And we know that he gave detailed advice about witchcraft rituals to both Robert Cochrane and ‘Robin of Barking Creek’, who were pioneers of the witchcraft revival of the 1960s. He also performed a ritual with rabbit’s blood with one of the young ‘Muses’ he attracted in his later years. I suspect that one was a suggestion of Idries Shah, who at that time was involved with Wicca, rather than the Sufism he later claimed to represent. I think the answer is that he had a magical world-view but didn’t always want to admit it!’