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30 January 2024

the person who rejected the White Goddess

In 1948 Faber and Faber published an adventurous book by Robert Graves, poet and mythologist: The White Goddess: A historical grammar of poetic myth. Graves had been working on the book since 1944. The book, although perplexing to many readers, quickly became one of the the century’s classics of creative mythology.

The Faber and Faber director, one T.S. Eliot wrote a blurb for the first edition: “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”.

In February 1957, Graves gave a lecture in New York in which He said:

“I offered The White Goddess in turn to the only publishers I knew who claimed to be personally concerned 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 of Literature, and a smash hit on Broadway. 

Very well. Call these coincidences. But 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.”

This was generally dismissed by biographers as Graves perhaps spinning some magical promotion for the book. 

However Graves scholar Grevel Lindop who also wrote a book on Charles Williams (who was an Inkling along with J RR Tolkein and C S Lewis, and also an editor at Oxford University Press) noticed that Williams’ unexpected death in 1945 would fit as that of the first publisher. He died during an emergency operation for stomach complaint 15 May 1945 – the operation presumably having caused heart failure. 

This was just ten months after he had declined Graves’ book: “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”.

Lindop was intrigued and wondered if the second editor could also be discovered. He considered that Graves may have confused Time and the New York Times. He asked a friend to search the New York Times archives. 

The following was found in the 20 July 1946 edition:


IRVINGTON ON HUDSON NY July 19—Alexander J. Blanton, 45 years old, a vice president of Macmillan Company, publishers, was found this afternoon hanging from a tree behind his home on Riverview Road here. Dr Amos O. Squire, Westchester medical examiner, listed the death as a "suicide while mentally disturbed."

Lindop used another personal connection who had a son who is an attorney to file a Freedom of Information request to obtain the medical examiner’s report re Blanton’s death.

This did confirm that Blanton was dressed, not in ‘panties and bra’, but fully dressed in his wife’s clothes.

Lindop and his associates thought to consult the New York Times, but missed the account in the New York Daily News.

  • “Publishing executive found dead”. New York Times, July 19, 1946.
  • “Hangs Himself in Wife’s Garb”. New York Daily News, Jul 20, 1946.
  • Grevel Lindop. “The White Goddess: Sources, Contexts, Meaning”. In Ian Firla & Grevel Lindop. Graves and the Godess: Essays on Robert Graves’s The White Goddess. Associated University Presses, 2003: 35-8.
  • David Holzer. “Vengeance of The White Goddess?”., 2024.. Online.

If we allow the idea that the White Goddess may have smited the two editors for impiety, then - as gods often do - she mis-aimed in that it was Charles Williams' boss who had rejected the book.

Blanton seems to be on the trans spectrum with the misfortune of having lived slighty too soon.  Seven years later Christine Jorgensen was in the news; a few years after that Virginia Prince had started organizing.  If Blanton had been 20 years younger there would have been the options of  socializing in meetings in New York organized by Susanna Valenti or Siobhan Fredericks.

I wonder if Blanton ever met Donald Wollheim who became an editor at Avon Books in the mid-1940s.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed The White Goddess when I was about 19, but only in the same way you might enjoy reading about the Late Bronze Age Collapse, or some Colin Wilson book on The Occult. But this is really eye-opening, and funny, because coincidence will take you only so far. I never read of these 'curse' stories before!


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