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The Great Poet Ern Malley (Who Never Existed)

Everyone thought the character was a literary genius

Two men with Poets for Hire Sign
Poets Selling Poems on the Street

One of my inspiration touchstones is “A Reader’s Book of Days”, by Tom Nissley. For every day of the year, Nissley has compiled a list of literary events. Birthdays and death dates of prominent authors. Book back-stories, quotes in correspondence, author motivations and insights, and publications on this particular date in history fill every page. It’s like taking a world literature class by reading a date-book.

On July 23rd, I read through Nissley’s compilation of literary events and came across a name I didn’t know: Ern Malley, who had “died” on that date in 1943. I admit — European poets are not my specialty, but I usually at least recognize the name. This one was unfamiliar. My intrigue grew with the entry:

“The romance of a poet dying young is difficult to resist, and Max Harris, the editor of the Australian poetry journal Angry Penguins, didn’t resist it at all when he received a packet of poems by an unknown writer named Ern Malley from someone claiming to be Malley’s sister, who said that her brother had left the poems behind when he died on this day at age twenty-five…”

Poor Max Harris

Max Harris, a 22-year-old editor, lover of poetry, and a sucker for a sad story, devoted a whole issue of his “Angry Penguins” magazine to his discovery of the masterpieces of Ern Malley, the 25-year-old poet who had succumbed to a thyroid condition.

“Here was a poet of tremendous power, working through a disciplined and restrained kind of statement into the deepest wells of human experience…”

Max Harris, his financial backer and co-editor, John Reed, and prominent artist Sidney Nolan, all members of the Board of “Angry Penguins”, loved the poems and the story that went with them.

The 1944 edition of “Angry Penguins” boasted a cover created by Nolan and a 35-page layout entitled “The Darkening Ecliptic”. Max Harris, who hoped that his discovery would vault him and his magazine to fame, wrote this introduction to his piece:

“Ern Malley prepared for his death quietly confident that he was a great poet and that he would be known as such . . . He treated death greatly, and as poetry, while undergoing the most fearful and debilitating nervous strain that a human being could possibly endure . . . I am firmly convinced that this unknown mechanic and insurance peddler is one of the most outstanding poets that we have produced.”

Max Harris promoted the heck out of Ern Malley, never knowing that as a result, his life would never be the same again…

Ern Malley Was a Literary Hoax

Two soldiers, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, were sitting in their barracks one afternoon, mocking the modern poetry movement. They both considered themselves traditional, conservative poets. Using Shakespearean phrases, a paper on mosquito breeding, and a dictionary, they composed — or rather pasted together from those random ideas — seventeen poems by a fictional character named Ern Malley. Then they concocted the story of a bereaved sister trying to honor the memory of her brother to get them published.

Max Harris and the board ofAngry Penguins” bought into the deception.

How a Literary Hoax Destroyed One Reputation and Created Another

After “Angry Penguins” published the Ern Malley edition, someone started digging. Max Harris hired a private detective. It’s unclear whether the perpetrators came forward or whether someone looked into the non-existent records on Ern Malley and his sister, Ethel. Either way, the Sydney Sunday paper came out with a front-page story on the fact that the lauded poet, Ern Malley, didn’t exist.

Newspapers accused Harris of writing the poems himself to get attention. Others derided the young editor for being gullible. He was taunted and shamed. Even the Catholic church criticized Harris.

But the humiliation had only just begun.

Max Harris, as the promoter of the Ern Malley poems, was taken to court on the charge of publishing obscene literature. He was fined for the Ern Malley poems which the judge said exhibited,

“far too great a fondness for sexual references . . . I cannot but regard it as an unhealthy sign even from a literary point of view. Boldness in sexual reference is too often mistaken for brilliance. I think that the defendant should either acquire that art of delicacy in the handling of sexual topics which is so necessary in literature or avoid the topic altogether”.

Rather than spend six weeks in jail, Harris opted to pay £21 in court costs.

Photo of Max Harris and his friends
Max Harris and friends photo

A Phoenix From the Ashes

Despite his smeared reputation, Max Harris was a young man when he published the Ern Malley poems, and he had plenty of time to overcome the humiliation. Harris got back on track.

  • He sought out new artists and asked for submissions. (I assume he verified their existence before publishing their work!)

  • He pioneered the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Dylan Thomas, and Patrick White.

  • He founded and co-edited two literary journals: “Australian Letters” and “The Australian Book Review”.

  • An atheist of Jewish heritage, Harris pushed for the canonization of Mary MacKillop, the first Australian nun to be recognized by the Catholic Church. As a gesture of gratitude, the Josephite nuns gave Harris a holy relic — a thread from her gown.

  • He acquired and ran Mary Martin bookshops, pioneering retail book sales with weekend hours, and implementing novel marketing strategies, such as his “shoplifter’s corner” to get rid of excess stock.

  • Even with his rough start, Harris became a recognized critic, commentator, publisher, editor, and intellectual.

The Joke Was on the Hoaxers

McAuley and Stewart were soon forgotten. Their poems did not get any attention. McAuley went on to found a magazine called Quadrant. He was a staunch anti-communist and ended up teaching English in Tasmania. I only wish that he had fallen for some elaborate hoax and had his editorial career dashed to pieces!

Stewart worked for a while in a bookshop before he left the country, settled in Japan, and took up Buddhism.

And Ern Malley?

Ern Malley, on the other hand, became a legend. His poetry was reprinted and influenced Australian poets John Tranter and John Forbes. Ern Malley, a nonexistent character, is still published and taught. Even the beleaguered Max Harris wrote years later,

“I still believe in Ern Malley.”

He should. His marketing made this fictitious poet into a respected literary genius.

Three Lessons to Take From Ern Malley

  • Any writer with integrity should understand that hoaxes hurt real people, even though they may provide a temporary boost to the hoaxer.

  • An unexpected kind of guerrilla marketing happens when controversy arises. While most of us shy away from conflict and intentional dishonesty, the vast amount of press generated by the Ern Malley hoax secured the future of the story and the poems.

  • Hoaxes create the need for discovery, and digging deep into the facts uncovers more angles, resulting in the creation of popular books.

“My Life As A Fake”, a novel by Peter Carey, was published on September 18th, 2005, and takes the Ern Malley affair as its subject. It even includes excerpts from Malley’s poems.

The Ern Malley Affair by Michael Heyward is republished by Faber on October 16th, 2003. Faber and Faber, the publisher of Heyward’s book, got permission from the estates of McAuley and Stewart to reproduce all the Malley poems and related papers.

Betty Snowden, an art curator who once worked for Harris in his Mary Martin bookshop in Adelaide, has written and published Max Harris: With Reason, Without Rhyme.

That flashy issue of Angry Penguins debuting the works of a tragic young poet — heavily promoted with special artwork and reverential comments from a rising young editor — was good marketing. Unfortunately, it promoted a non-existent person.

Hoax or not, the resulting controversy only skyrocketed the work of Ern Malley to stardom.

If you’re wondering about the derivation of the word “hoax?” (Not many words like it….) The Oxford English Dictionary theorizes that it’s an abbreviated form of the words “Hocus Pocus.” An appropriate word for a murky magic that made a poet out of a prank!


Read more about literary hoaxes: "The Importance of Being Authentic"

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1 Comment

It's a very cool article, I probably thought, like everyone else, that this is a real person, or a group of people, who somehow write these incredible poems. Even when I was in Israel, I communicated with the locals with the help of an English to Hebrew translator , which made my stay there quite easy and gave me the opportunity to find out what others thought about it. It turned out that they were of the same opinion as me, so we immediately found a common language and discussed various topics of poetry for quite a long time.

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