Ernest Lalor "Ern" Malley was a fictitious poet and the central figure in Australia's most celebrated literary hoax. He and his entire body of work were created in one day in 1944 by writers James McAuley and Harold Stewart in order to hoax Max Harris and Angry Penguins, the modernist magazine Harris had founded and edited.
In the decades after their publication, the hoax had a negative effect on the cause of modernist poetry in Australia. Since the 1970s, however, the Ern Malley poems, though known to be a hoax, became celebrated as a successful example of surrealist poetry in their own right, lauded by poets and critics such as John Ashbery and Robert Hughes.
James McAuley and Harold Stewart were both, in 1944, in the Army Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs. Before the war they had been part of Sydney's Bohemian arts world. McAuley had acted and sung in left-wing revues at Sydney University. Both preferred early Modernism to its later forms. McAuley, for example, claimed that T.S. Eliot's Love Song Of J Alfred Prufrock (1917) was genius, but the subsequent Waste Land (1922), regarded by many as Eliot's finest achievement, was an incoherent mess. Both men lamented "the loss of meaning and craftsmanship" in poetry. They particularly despised the well-funded modernist poetry magazine Angry Penguins and were resentful of the precocious success of Max Harris, the magazine's founder and editor.
Creating the hoax
McAuley and Stewart decided to perpetrate a hoax on Harris and Angry Penguins by submitting to the magazine nonsensical poetry, which they felt captured the worst of modernist tendencies, under the guise of a fictional poet. They came up with a fictional biography for the poet "Ern Malley", who they claimed had died the year before at the age of 25. They chose the name "Malley" as a pun on the word Mallee, denoting a class of Australian native vegetation and a bird, the Malleefowl. Then, in one afternoon, they wrote his entire body of work: 17 poems, none longer than a page, and all intended to be read in sequence under the title The Darkening Ecliptic.
Their writing style, as they described it, was to write down the first thing that came into their heads, lifting words and phrases from the Concise Oxford Dictionary, a Collected Shakespeare, and a Dictionary of Quotations: "We opened books at random, choosing a word or phrase haphazardly. We made lists of these and wove them in nonsensical sentences. We misquoted and made false allusions. We deliberately perpetrated bad verse, and selected awkward rhymes from a Ripman's Rhyming Dictionary." They also included many bits of their own poetry, though in a deliberately disjointed manner.
The first poem in the sequence, Durer: Innsbruck, 1495, was an unpublished serious effort by McAuley, lightly 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.
David Brooks argued in his 2011 book, The Sons of Clovis: Ern Malley, Adoré Floupette and a Secret History of Australian Poetry, that the Ern Malley hoax was modelled on the 1885 satire on French Symbolism and the Decadent movement, Les Déliquescences d'Adoré Floupette by Henri Beauclair and Gabriel Vicaire.
Biography of "Ern Malley"
|Ernest Lalor Malley|
|Birth name||Ernest Lalor Malley|
14 March 1918|
|Died||23 July 1943
|Works||The Darkening Ecliptic|
According to his inventors' fictitious biography, Ernest Lalor Malley was born in Liverpool, England on 14 March 1918. His father died in 1920, and Malley's mother migrated to Petersham, a suburb of Sydney, Australia, with her two children: Ern, and his older sister Ethel. After his mother's death in August 1933, Ern Malley left school to work as an auto mechanic. Shortly after his seventeenth birthday, he then moved to Melbourne where he lived alone and worked as an insurance salesman, and later as a watch repairman. Diagnosed with Graves' disease sometime in the early 1940s, Malley refused treatment. He returned to Sydney, moving in with his sister in March, 1943, where he became increasingly ill (as well as temperamental and difficult) until his premature death at the age of 25 on 23 July of that same year.
His life as a poet became known only after Ethel found a pile of unpublished poems among his belongings. The fictitious Ethel Malley supposedly knew nothing about poetry, but a friend suggested that she send the poems to someone who could examine them. Max Harris of Angry Penguins was to be that someone.
Carrying out the hoax
McAuley and Stewart then sent Harris a letter, purported to be from Ethel, containing the poems, and asking for his opinion of her late brother's work.
Harris read the poems with, as he later recalled, a mounting sense of excitement. Ern Malley, he thought, was a poet in the same class as W. H. Auden or Dylan Thomas. He showed them to his circle of literary friends, who agreed that a hitherto completely unknown modernist poet of great importance had been discovered in suburban Australia. He decided to rush out a special edition of Angry Penguins and commissioned a painting by Sidney Nolan, based on the poems, for the cover.
The "Autumn 1944" edition of Angry Penguins appeared in June 1945 owing to wartime printing delays. Harris eagerly promoted it around the small world of Australian writers and critics. The reaction was not what he had hoped or expected. An article appeared in the University of Adelaide student newspaper ridiculing the Malley poems and suggesting that Harris had written them himself in some elaborate hoax.
The hoax revealed
On 17 June, 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.
The Ern Malley hoax was on the front pages of the newspapers for weeks, and Harris was humiliated.
"Mr. Max Harris and other Angry Penguins writers represent an Australian outcrop of a literary fashion which has become prominent in England and America," McAuley and Stewart wrote after the hoax was revealed. "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," [they went on] "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."
Angry Penguins soon folded, although the magazine's demise had more to do with a libel case brought against Harris for an unconnected review and the emotional fallout from events in the open marriage of its backers John Reed and his wife, Sunday.
Most people, including most educated people with an interest in the arts, were persuaded of the validity of McAuley and Stewart's "experiment." The two had deliberately written bad poetry, passed it off under a plausible alias to the country's most prominent publisher of modernist poetry, and had completely taken him in. Harris, they said, could not tell real poetry from fake, good from bad.
The Ern Malley hoax had long-lasting repercussions. To quote the Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, "More important than the hoax itself was the effect it had on the development of Australian poetry. The vigorous and legitimate movement for modernism in Australian writing, espoused by many writers and critics in addition to the members of the Angry Penguins group, received a severe setback, and the conservative element was undoubtedly strengthened."
Controversy over Ern Malley continued for more than twenty years. It spread beyond Australia when it was learned that the British literary critic Herbert Read had been taken in by the hoax. Modernist novelists like Patrick White and abstract painters found themselves tarred with the Ern Malley brush. Since both McAuley and Stewart and the left-wing nationalist school around Vance and Nettie Palmer disliked the Angry Penguins version of modernism with equal venom, though for different reasons, Ern Malley cast a long shadow over Australian cultural life.
In a 1975 interview with Earle Hackett, Sidney Nolan credited Ern Malley with inspiring him to paint his first Ned Kelly series (1946–47), saying "It made me take the risk of putting against the Australian bush an utterly strange object."
McAuley, Stewart and Harris in later years
McAuley went on to publish several volumes of poetry and, with Richard Krygier, founded the literary and cultural journal Quadrant. From 1961 he was professor of English at the University of Tasmania. He died in 1976.
Stewart settled permanently in Japan in 1966 and published two volumes of translations of traditional Japanese poetry which became best-sellers in Australia. He died in 1995.
Harris, however, once he recovered from his humiliation in the Ern Malley hoax, made the best of his notoriety. From 1951 to 1955, he published another literary magazine, which he called Ern Malley's Journal. In 1961, as a gesture of defiance, he re-published the Ern Malley poems, maintaining that whatever McAuley and Stewart had intended to do, they had, in fact, produced some memorable poems. Harris went on to become a successful bookseller and newspaper columnist. His political views moved significantly to the right as he got older (he had been a member of the Communist Party at the time of the hoax), and in the mid-1960s, he claimed to sympathise with McAuley and Stewart's motivations in creating Ern Malley. Harris died in 1995.
The fictional Ern Malley achieved a measure of celebrity. The poems are regularly re-published and quoted.
Some literary critics take the view that McAuley and Stewart outsmarted themselves in their concoction of the Ern Malley poems. "Sometimes the myth is greater than its creators," Max Harris wrote. Harris, of course, had a vested interest in Malley, but others have agreed with his assessment. Robert Hughes wrote:
The basic case made by Ern's defenders was that his creation proved the validity of surrealist procedures: that in letting down their guard, opening themselves to free association and chance, McAuley and Stewart had reached inspiration by the side-door of parody; and though this can't be argued on behalf of all the poems, some of which are partly or wholly gibberish, it contains a ponderable truth... The energy of invention that McAuley and Stewart brought to their concoction of Ern Malley created an icon of literary value, and that is why he continues to haunt our culture.
Much of what Hughes admired in the Malley poems originated in the work of McAuley and Stewart, poets he claimed to dislike.
In the "Individual Notes on Works and Authors" in the "Special Collaborations Issue" of Locus Solus, Kenneth Koch wrote, "Though Harris was wrong about who Ern Malley 'was' (if one can use that word here), I find it hard not to agree with his judgment of Malley's poetry."
I think it was the first summer I was at Harvard as a student, and I discovered a wonderful bookstore there where I could get modern poetry – which I’d never been able to lay my hands on very much until then – and they had the original edition of The Darkening Ecliptic with the Sidney Nolan cover. [....] I always had a taste for sort of wild experimental poetry – of which there really wasn’t very much in English in America at the time – and this poet suited me very well. [...] I am obliged to give a final examination in my poetry writing course [at Brooklyn College, NY], which I’m always rather hard put to do, since we haven’t really studied anything. The students have been writing poems of varying degrees of merit, and though I give them reading lists they tend to ignore them, after first demanding them. And the way the course is set up there is no way of examining them on their reading. And anyway they shouldn’t have to pass an examination because they’re poets who are writing poetry, and I don’t like the idea of grading poems. So in order to pass the examination time I had to think of various subterfuges, and one of them is to use one of Malley’s poems and another forbiddingly modern poem – frequently one of Geoffrey Hill’s ‘Mercian Hymns’. And asking them if they can guess which one is the real poem by a respected contemporary poet, and which one is a put-on intended to ridicule modern poetry, and what are their reasons. And I think they are right about fifty per cent of the time, identifying the fraud... [the] fraudulent poem.
The final irony is enduring fame: Malley is better known and more widely read today than either McAuley or Stewart.
References to Ern Malley and the hoax
The Australian historian Humphrey McQueen alluded to the poems in calling his 1979 history of modernism in Australia The Black Swan of Trespass.
Joanna Murray-Smith's play Angry Young Penguins (1987) is based on these events.
Peter Carey's 2003 novel My Life as a Fake draws some of its inspiration from the Ern Malley affair. Elliot Perlman recounts the tale of the Ern Malley hoax in his 2003 novel Seven Types of Ambiguity. In 2005, "The Black Swan of Trespass", a surrealist play about the real life of a self-admittedly fictional Ern Malley by Lally Katz and Chris Kohn, premiered at the Melbourne Malthouse Theatre.
In the early years of the 21st century, the artist Garry Shead produced a series of well-received paintings based on the Ern Malley hoax.
- Alfred Tipper, another outsider artist promoted by Angry Penguins
- Helen Darville
- Piotr Zak, a very similar musical hoax from 1961
- Nat Tate, New York artistic hoax
- Surrealist techniques
- The Sokal affair, a similar hoax in American cultural studies
- Pearce, Barry. Sidney Nolan. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2007. ISBN 1-74174-013-4, pp. 96-97
- James McAuley at the Australian Dictionary of Biography Online
- "Ern, it turns out, has a French cousin" by Don Anderson, The Australian (1–2 October 2011)
- Documentation of Ethel's action and other sources can be viewed online at the Ern Malley Feature, Jacket (Sydney), No. 7, June 2002, ed. John Tranter
- Lehman D 1998 The Ern Malley Poetry Hoax – Introduction in Jacket No 17
- Pierce, Peter (2000). "McAuley, James Phillip (1917–1976) Biographical Entry – Australian Dictionary of Biography Online". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Retrieved 13 November 2008.
- "John Ashbery in conversation with John Tranter New York City, May 1988". Jacket. May 1988. Retrieved 30 September 2011.
- McQueen, H., The Black Swans of Trespass: The Emergence of Modernist Painting in Australia 1918–1944, Alternative Publishing, Sydney 1979
- Michael Heyward, The Ern Malley Affair, University of Queensland Press, 1993
- David Lewis, "Ern Malley's Namesake", Quadrant, March 1995
- The Sons of Clovis: Ern Malley, Adoré Floupette and a Secret History of Australian Poetry. Brisbane: University of Queensland Press. 2011. ISBN 978-0-7022-3884-0.
- Les Déliquescences – poèmes décadents d'Adoré Floupette, avec sa vie par Marius Tapora by Henri Beauclair and Gabriel Vicaire (French)