The Greatest Literary Hoax

James McAuley
Portrait of James McAuley
Louis Kahan, 1905-2002
Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia

Ern Malley was a fictional character created by James McAuley and Harold Stewart. In this elaborately conceived deception, Ern Malley had just died and his equally fictional sister - Ethel Malley - had forwarded her brother’s supposed poems to the Angry Penguins editor, Max Harris.

McAuley and Stewart wanted to know whether the Angry Penguins could distinguish between poetry that was 'a collection of garish images without coherent meaning and structure' and the real thing.

Of their 'concocted nonsense', McAuley said: 'we opened books at random, choosing a word or a phrase haphazardly'.

Harris, supported by his colleagues, published 16 of the poems under the cover title The Darkening Ecliptic. Sydney Nolan even created a special cover for that 1944 edition of the Angry Penguins

Sydney tabloid - FACT - broke the story and revealed the deception on 5 June 1944, and McAuley and Stewart - whose intention was never to make the hoax public - came clean.

The repercussions

The Ern Malley affair was international news. Harris and his supporters argued that the poems had literary merit and that the two poets, under the guise of Malley, had succeeded despite themselves.

The debate about the hoax was quickly overshadowed when Max Harris was bought to trial for publishing seven Ern Malley poems, labelled by police as 'indecent advertisements'. The rest of the poems were labelled 'indecent, immoral, or obscene'. 

Harris was convicted for publishing obscene material and was fined £5 in lieu of six weeks’ imprisonment. Modernism in Australia suffered an ignoble death and resulted in the triumph of conservatism in Australian poetry for the next twenty odd years. 

With the passage of time, Max Harris’s legacy has been put in its proper perspective. Alan Brissenden, in his introduction to The Angry Penguin, 1996, said that Harris’s 'place in Australia's cultural history is secured by his essential role in the development of modernism in art and literature in this country ...'.