1944, Melbourne and Adelaide:
The Ern Malley Hoax
Back in 1944 the Australian poet ‘Ern Malley’ was world famous for fifteen minutes, because he was non-existent. Malley was a hoax whose life and work were purportedly created one Saturday afternoon in October the previous year, in Melbourne’s Victoria Barracks, by two young Australian servicemen and former school friends, James McAuley and Harold Stewart. Their purpose was to hornswoggle Max Harris, editor of the Adelaide–Melbourne magazine of contemporary writing and art, Angry Penguins, into publishing the work of their dead, pseudo-avant-garde poet – which he did, in a special ‘Ern Malley Commemorative’ issue. The whole affair was front-page news in Australia, and even around the world, reported in the UK papers as well as in Time and Newsweek for 17 July 1944. Sixty years on, one might expect this episode to be a footnote to Australian literary history, its notoriety a thing of the past. But domestic as well as international fascination with the Malley succès de scandale shows no sign of diminution. In Ezra Pound’s sense, the handful of Malley poems, only sixteen in all, is news that has remained news. McAuley and Stewart’s counterfeit, working-class poet and his ‘inauthentic compositions’ seem to attract increasing critical interest, as well as rich imaginative extensions. Harold Stewart had an intimation of another long-term effect of the hoax he helped to perpetrate when he wrote in 1995, the year of his death, that ‘future historians will have no difficulty in proving James McAuley and Harold Stewart never existed, but were really figments in the imagination of the reallife Ern’ (Stewart 1995). With every year that passes, the Malley hoax looks more and more like the originary moment of Australian literary modernism and a unique instance of cultural modernisation (Heyward 1993: 237).
Part of the explanation for this improbable state of affairs lies in the origins of what was originally intended as an act of literary-cultural sabotage, designed to break the machinery of a nascent Anglo-Australian modernism so that it could never be repaired. It went wrong from the start. Beyond its intended aims, the Malley hoax unleashed a set of cultural forces that remained volatile for a long time. The half-life of Malley has far exceeded the feverish calculations of the poet-savants who dared to create him. In terms of the psychoanalysis of culture, the hoax was a surface eruption that disturbed a deeper cultural contradiction, and the libidinal forces released by its scandalous, homosocial collaboration had to be paid for, it seems, in violent anti-modernist oppression (ˇizˇek 1994: 13). If McAuley and Stewart thought that the anti-matter of ‘Ern Malley’’s poems would implode, sucking Angry Penguins and Australian poetic modernism back into the parallel universe they had mistakenly, in their view, crossed over from, then they badly miscalculated.