In 1944 Max Harris, 23, was an Adelaide-based poet and co-editor of the modernist and literary art review Angry Penguins.
In that year’s edition, it featured the poems of Ern Malley, who was said to have died the previous year at the age of 25.
But while posting these poems, he fell in love with one of the greatest literary hoaxes in Australian history – and made Ern Malley a household name for all the wrong reasons.
A fateful letter
Author Stephen Orr says that by the 1940s, while Modernism had been popular in Europe for decades, Australia still had not embraced the movement.
“We kept writing poems about gum trees and so on,” he told Paul Barclay during ABC RN’s Big Weekend of Books.
Harris, who was a fan of modernist poets such as Dylan Thomas and TS Eliot, had created Angry Penguins with friends in 1940 when they were students at the University of Adelaide.
The journal featured modernist poetry – including that of Harris – and soon caught the attention of the Australian literary establishment.
John Reed – who, along with his wife Sunday, hosted artists such as Sidney Nolan and Joy Hester at their property, Heide, in Melbourne – researched Harris and became co-editor of the newspaper.
In October 1943 Harris received a letter from Ethel Malley of Croydon, New South Wales.
Ethel wrote that her brother Ernest – or Ern, as she called him – had passed away after months of illness. When she was sifting through her belongings after her death, Ethel had found some of Ern’s poetry.
According to Ethel, Ern had never talked about writing poetry and, although she admitted that she did not understand poems, a friend of her had told her that they were good and should be published.
“He thinks they’re wonderful,” Orr said.
“They’re very modernist, very weird – little bits of facts and slips of lists, weird pictures… it’s all over the store.”
Harris shared the poems with John Reed and others, who confirmed his opinion that the poems were excellent.
Thus, in 1944, Angry Penguins devoted an entire number to Malley’s poetry. Sidney Nolan painted an artwork for the cover.
Harris wrote an introduction to the edition describing Malley’s short life and untimely death, as described by his sister.
“I firmly believe,” writes Harris, “that this unknown mechanic and insurance peddler is one of the most remarkable poets we have produced here.”
Yet within weeks it emerged that neither Ern Malley, nor his sister Ethel, had ever existed.
Orr says Reed had doubts “early enough” about the veracity of Malley’s poems.
“He knew some people wanted to have them and make them look ridiculous,” Orr says.
Shortly after the publication, a professor of literature at the University of Adelaide publicly stated that he believed Harris had written the poems himself.
The Adelaide press followed the controversy, reporting rumors that Malley was in fact the literature professor and detective writer JIM Stewart, aka Michael Innes.
Student bookmakers have reportedly started offering odds on the poet’s true identity.
University of Adelaide student newspaper On Dit teamed up with University of Sydney equivalent Honi Soit and discovered the address given by Ethel Malley was in fact the residence of Sydney poet Harold Stewart.
Then, days later, Stewart and fellow poet James McAuley released a statement admitting they were behind the hoax.
McAuley and Stewart, both in the military, said in the statement that they believed Modernist poetry to be “nonsense without humor.”
“We produced the entire tragic work of Ern Malley in one afternoon using a fortuitous collection of books that were on our desk: the Concise Oxford Dictionary, a collection of Shakespeare, a dictionary of quotes, etc.
Speaking to the ABC in 1959, McAuley said the couple disagreed with modernists such as Harris “on the nature of inspiration.”
He said the Angry Penguins journal was part of a wave of art and poetry that was “an abandonment to irrational forces” and “a devaluation of the capacities of consciousness in artistic production”.
Stewart claimed that “the literary experience” has shown how contemporary criticism brainwashed people to lose both their sense of humor and their sense of beauty.
“You will have people listening to Concrete Music or looking at the most hideous Picasso and saying ‘Isn’t that beautiful’, unable to say … how hideous it really is,” said Stewart.
Poetry to the test
Some in Adelaide viewed Ern Malley’s poems as not only ugly but obscene.
On August 1, Harris was visited by the police who asked him questions about his involvement in the publication of Ern Malley’s poems.
It was then charged with “indecent publication”.
“Basically there were a few lines and a few poems that, if you use your imagination, could be someone going to a park to have sex or someone who has an erection,” Orr says.
“You must have worked on it to come to these conclusions, however.”
In 1959, Harris told the ABC that sometimes the trial was “hilarious and funny.”
“In order to prove that the poems were indecent, immoral and obscene, they had to find meaning,” he said.
“On the other hand, they also wanted to have their cake and say it was crazy nonsense.”
Harris was found guilty, fined £ 5 and ordered to pay an additional £ 21 in court costs.
“Max was really damaged by this,” Orr said.
But while “he never really recovered as a poet,” Orr says, “he’s done some amazing things in his life.”
These include running the Mary Martin Bookstore in Melbourne, writing a column for The Australian and founding the Australian Book Review.
McAuley became founding editor of the conservative literary journal Quadrant and then headed the English Literature Department at the University of Tasmania.
Stewart became known as a Buddhist scholar and Japanese haiku translator. He settled permanently in Japan in 1966.
The poems live
While the dead poet behind them turned out to be fictional, the poems themselves continued to have a life of their own.
Over a decade later, artist Albert Tucker said some of the writings were “superb”, while Sidney Nolan said they gave Australian poetry new grace.
“I think there is a certain type of soft eroticism in the poems, which does not occur in any other Australian poet,” he said.
The poems and their stories have inspired artists, writers and musicians in the decades since the hoax.
In 2009, Heide (now a museum of modern art) organized an exhibition of works of art inspired by Ern Malley.
Peter Carey’s 2003 novel, My Life as a Fake, is loosely based on the case.
And more recently, Orr’s novel Sincerely, Ethel Malley reinvents Ern’s sister as a living, breathing character.
“Ethel for me, just reading these few letters, jumps off the page like a sort of Lady Edna Everage part, part … [Patrick White character] Elizabeth Hunter, ”Orr says.
“I wanted her to contact Max, I wanted her to get on a train and go to Adelaide and for them to stay in an apartment and do the editing – everything else that never really happened, I wanted let that happen.
“That’s what writers do, I guess, is we want something out there and it’s not there, so we do it ourselves.”
Hear Stephen Orr speak more with Paul Barclay about his book Sincerely, Ethel Malley – as well as his thoughts on the Ern Malley affair – as part of ABC Radio National’s Big Weekend of Books.