The Upside Down Under
Portrait of Ern Malley by Sidney Nolan


Ernest Lalor "Ern" Malley was a fictitious poet and the central figure in Australia's most famous literary hoax.

THE greatest literary hoax of the twentieth century was concocted by a couple of Australian soldiers at their desks in the offices of the Victoria Barracks in Melbourne, land headquarters of the Australian army, on a quiet Saturday in October 1943.

The uniformed noncombatants, Lieutenant James McAuley and Corporal Harold Stewart, were a pair of Sydney poets with a shared animus toward modern poetry in general and a particular hatred of the surrealist stuff championed by Adelaide wunderkind Max Harris, the twenty-two-year-old editor of Angry Penguins, a well-heeled journal devoted to the spread of modernism down under.

James McAuley and Harold Stewart

At the time, Max Harris was a glamorous young Australian poet who was making a reputation for himself as something of a rebel as editor of Angry Penguins, a cutting-edge literary magazine. Harris wanted to shake up the artistic community by exposing it to new ideas and new writers, and in 1944 he thought he had found a writer worth taking under his wing. That writer's name was Ern Malley.

Harris never actually met Malley. Instead, he received some of Malley's poems in the mail from a woman claiming to be Malley's sister. Ern himself had, it seemed, died of Graves' disease and his sister said that she had found the poems while going through his possessions after his death.

Letter to Max Harris by Ern Malley's sister
Max Harris received some of Malley's poems in the mail from a woman claiming to be Malley's sister.

The poems were strange, dark, brooding, and almost incomprehensible. They contained lines such as...

"I am still the black swan of trespass on alien waters."

The fictitious poet and his rubbish prose were created to poke fun at modernist poetry. The hoaxers pulled lines from dictionaries, Shakespeare, and whatever popped into their heads. In all, McAuley and Stewart  wrote 17 poems as Malley.

The first poem in the sequence was an unpublished serious effort by McAuley, edited to appeal to Harris:

I had often cowled in the slumbrous heavy air,
Closed my inanimate lids to find it real,
As I knew it would be, the colourful spires
And painted roofs, the high snows glimpsed at the back,
All reversed in the quiet reflecting waters –
Not knowing then that Durer perceived it too.
Now I find that once more I have shrunk
To an interloper, robber of dead men's dream,
I had read in books that art is not easy
But no one warned that the mind repeats
In its ignorance the vision of others. I am still
The black swan of trespass on alien waters.

Harris fell for Malley hook, line and sinker. So did his patrons and chums, including the painter Sidney Nolan, who would become the most celebrated Australian painter of his generation.

Harris arranged for a special edition of Angry Penguins to be devoted to Malley's work. As mentioned previously, there was just one problem. Ern Malley didn't exist. He was the satirical creation of hoaxers McAuley & Stewart, who were hostile to modernist poetry, to see if they could get the literary world to accept what they described as "deliberately concocted nonsense."

Angry Penguins magazine cover featuring Ern Malley's poems
Cover of magazine 'Angry Penguins' from 1944.

The Hoax Revealed

On 17 June 1944, the Adelaide Daily Mail raised the possibility that Harris was the hoaxed rather than the hoaxer. Alarmed, Harris hired a private detective to establish whether Ern and Ethel Malley existed or had ever done so. But by now, the Australian national press was on the trail. The next week, the Sydney Sunday Sun, which had been conducting some investigative reporting, ran a front-page story alleging that the Ern Malley poems had in fact been written by McAuley and Stewart.

The South Australian police impounded the issue of Angry Penguins devoted to The Darkening Ecliptic on the grounds that Malley's poems were obscene.  As a result, the Ern Malley hoax was on the front pages of the newspapers for weeks, and Harris was humiliated.

After the hoax was revealed, McAuley and Stewart wrote:

Mr. Max Harris and other Angry Penguins writers represent an Australian outcrop of a literary fashion which has become prominent in England and America. The distinctive feature of the fashion, it seemed to us, was that it rendered its devotees insensible of absurdity and incapable of ordinary discrimination. Our feeling was that by processes of critical self-delusion and mutual admiration, the perpetrators of this humourless nonsense had managed to pass it off on would-be intellectuals and Bohemians, both here and abroad, as great poetry. [...] However, it was possible that we had simply failed to penetrate to the inward substance of these productions. The only way of settling the matter was by way of experiment. It was, after all, fair enough. If Mr Harris proved to have sufficient discrimination to reject the poems, then the tables would have been turned.

The immediate fall out was the humiliation of Max Harris, the passionate champion of modernist poetry who had published the poems with great praise. To add insult to injury, Harris was then successfully prosecuted for publishing 'indecent matter' as some of the poems were found to be under the South Australian Police Act.

The Legacy of Ern Malley

Taking a longer view, the prank arguably undermined the cause of literary modernism and experimentation in Australian literature. The great irony is that the poems endure as popular literary works in their own right, and have continued to inspire generations of artists, writers and imitators.

The fictional Ern Malley achieved a measure of celebrity. The poems are regularly re-published and quoted. There have been at least 20 publications of the Darkening Ecliptic, either complete or partial. It has reappeared – not only in Australia, but in London, Paris, Lyons, Kyoto, New York and Los Angeles – with a regularity that would be the envy of any real Australian poet.

Two exhibitions by major Australian galleries have been based on Ern Malley. In 1974 the Art Gallery of South Australia’s Adelaide Festival Exhibitions included the Sidney Nolan exhibition "Ern Malley and Paradise Garden". The 2009 exhibition "Ern Malley: The Hoax and Beyond" at Heide Museum of Modern Art was the first exhibition to thoroughly investigate the genesis, reception and aftermath of the hoax.

Portrait of Ern Malley by Sidney Nolan
Portrait of Ern Malley by Sidney Nolan

The final irony is enduring fame: Malley is better known and more widely read today than either McAuley or Stewart.

None of the protagonists in Australia's most celebrated literary hoax are still alive, but their voices and their reflections on the world famous Ern Malley affair survive in the ABC archive. In 1959, ABC broadcaster John Thompson, who was also a poet, produced a radio feature 'The Ern Malley story' in which all the protagonists, and some of Ern Malley's most ardent defenders were tracked down and interviewed: James McAuley, Harold Stewart, Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker and Max Harris.



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