Max Harris (poet)

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Max Harris with Joy Hester, ca. 1943, taken by Albert Tucker

Maxwell Henley Harris AO (13 April 1921 – 13 January 1995) was an Australian poet, critic, columnist, commentator, publisher, and bookseller.

Early life[edit]

Harris was born in Adelaide, South Australia, and raised in the city of Mount Gambier where his father was based as a travelling salesman. His early poetry was published in the children's pages of the Adelaide newspaper The Sunday Mail. He continued to write poetry through his secondary schooling on scholarship to St Peter's College, Adelaide, and by the time he attended the University of Adelaide, he was already recognised as a poet and intellectual. He edited two editions of Adelaide University's student newspaper On Dit in 1941 when John Allison resigned.

Angry Penguins[edit]

Main article: Angry Penguins

Harris's involvement in poetry and his passion for the burgeoning European modernist movement underscored the creation of a modernist literary journal called Angry Penguins. This name was taken from one of his poems, Mithridatum of Despair. Fellow founders of Angry Penguins in 1940 were D.B. "Sam" Kerr, Paul G. Pfeiffer and Geoffrey Dutton. The first issue of the journal attracted the interest of the Melbourne lawyer and arts patron John Reed who sought out Harris in Adelaide, suggesting a collaboration in publishing the journal. Harris, already active in trying to establish a Contemporary Art Society in South Australia, was lured to the Reeds' Melbourne art enclave at Heide wherein Sidney Nolan was the primary artist under Reed's patronage. By the second issue of Angry Penguins, Harris had incorporated visual art into the journal – and, later, Nolan became an active member of the editorial team. Other artists such as Albert Tucker, Joy Hester, James Gleeson, Arthur Boyd and John Perceval also came under the wing of Angry Penguins and, through their careers and into posterity, have been known as "Angry Penguin artists".

Harris was too vivid and charismatic a young intellectual for the conservative Establishment of the period, and particularly the traditionalist poets were outraged by the success of Angry Penguins with its progressive content and promotion of surrealism. It was publishing the works of Dylan Thomas, Gabriel García Márquez, James Dickey and the American poet Harry Roskolenko.

The poet and critic A. D. Hope was among those most virulently opposed to Harris and the modernists and inspired two young poets serving in the army, Harold Stewart and James McAuley, to "get Maxy". Under the name of "Ern Malley", the poets crafted a series of poems in the modernist style and submitted them to Harris at Angry Penguins. The poems were accompanied by a letter from the poet's supposed sister, Ethel Malley, explaining that Ern had died of Graves' disease and she did not know if the poems were any good so she was giving them to Max Harris to do what he wished with them. Harris thought the poems were brilliant and he published them with some fanfare in Angry Penguins.[1]

The poems were controversial but well received – except by the police in South Australia, where Angry Penguins was published. The police interpreted some lines in the poetry as lewd (one poem used the word "incestuous"[2]) and Harris was charged with obscenity.

Reed and Harris who, by this time, also were publishing books, employed a detective to discover more about the mystery poet – and then word emerged that Ern Malley was a hoax. The poets were unrepentant. The trial went forward, its bizarre constabulary logic and valiant defence arguments from Harris and noted literary critics attracting international press attention. Harris was found guilty and fined five pounds.

Harris never wavered in his belief in the quality of the poetry – and Ern Malley has lived on to some acclaim. His poetry continues to be published and studied, his story dramatised and fictionalised.[3][4]

Later life[edit]

Max Harris went on, partnered by his university friend Mary Maydwell Martin, to run the Mary Martin Bookshop in Adelaide, publishing a monthly newsletter which continued literary criticism and comment as well as listing and reviewing books, later featuring a large selection of quality remaindered titles, for a clientele which stretched into remote regions of Australia. Mary Martin moved to India and Harris expanded the book empire with shops around Australia and in Hong Kong. He championed the rights of Australian readers by fighting the stranglehold of overseas publishers over the Australian book market, founding the book remainder industry in Australia, and taking on the major publishing houses to ensure accessibly-priced supplies for the Australian market. . The Mary Martin chain was sold to Macmillans in the late 1970s.[5]

Harris also rose to the forefront of the movement against literary and art censorship in Australia and was an early voice in the Australian republican movement.

He founded and co-edited the literary journals Australian Letters and the Australian Book Review. He continued to encourage a relationship between visual artists and writers by commissioning artists to illustrate poetry in Australian Letters. In the quest of Australian books for Australians, he also was one of the instigators and founders of Sun Books.

Meanwhile, he became a long-serving and controversial columnist for the national newspaper, The Australian, many of his "Browsing" columns later published in book form. It was in this context that he was dubbed "Australia's Cultural Catalyst". He also wrote columns for Adelaide newspapers and contributed to literary publications.

He published his poetry privately, although much was included in classic Australian anthologies. A collection of his work was published posthumously by the National Library of Australia as The Angry Penguin.[6]

As a founder of the Contemporary Art Society, a champion of the surrealist movement and an art critic, he was later awarded the title of "Father of Modernism in the Australian Arts" by the Alumni Association of Adelaide University. His contribution to Australian Arts and Letters was recognised with an appointment as Officer of the Order of Australia.

Although he was not a Roman Catholic, Harris championed the then little-known Australian nun and teacher, Mary MacKillop, founder of the Josephite Order, calling her "a saint for all Australians". He became a prominent lay spokesman for her cause – which has since been realised. In return, the Josephites took him into their care when he died. His ashes lie in a park between the Mary MacKillop College and the Josephite Convent in Adelaide.

Personal life[edit]

Max Harris was the father of journalist and columnist Samela Harris.[5]

Popular culture[edit]

Richard Flanagan makes reference to Max Harris in his critically acclaimed novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North.



  • The Vegetative Eye, Reed & Harris, Melbourne (1943)


  • The Angry Penguin – Selected poems of Max Harris, National Library of Australia, Canberra (1996)
  • A Window at Night, ABR Publications, Adelaide (1967)
  • The Circus and Other Poems, Australian Letters, Adelaide (1961) – illustrated by Arthur Boyd
  • The Coorong and Other Poems, Mary Martin Bookshop, Adelaide (1955)
  • Dramas From the Sky, The Adelaide University Arts Association, Adelaide (1942)
  • The Gift of Blood: Poetry, Jindyworobak Club, Adelaide (1940)
  • Poetic Gems, Mary Martin Bookshop, Adelaide (1979)


  • The Australian Way with Words, Heinemann, Melbourne (1989)
  • Kenneth Slessor, Lansdowne Press, Melbourne (1963)
  • Laughter in the Air: Tales from the Qantas Era (1988) – with Colin Burgess
  • The Land that Waited, Landsowne, Sydney (1971) – with Alison Forbes


  • Australia's Censorship Crisis, Sun Books, Melbourne (1970) – with Geoffrey Dutton
  • Australian Poetry, Angus & Robertson, Sydney (1967)
  • Sir Henry, Bjelke Don Baby and Friends, Sun Book, Melborune (1971) – with Geoffrey Dutton
  • The Vital Decade: Ten Years of Australian Art and Letters, Sun Books, Melbourne (1968) – with Geoffrey Dutton

Collected writings[edit]

  • The Angry Eye, Pergamon Press, Sydney (1973)
  • The Best of Max Harris – 21 Years of Browsing, Unwin Paperbacks, Sydney (1986)
  • Ockers : essays on the bad old new Australia, Maximus Books, Adelaide (1974)
  • The Unknown Great Australian and Other Psychobiographical Portraits, Sun Books, Melbourne (1983)


  1. ^ "Ern Malley visits Heide". aCOMMENT. Retrieved 24 July 2014. 
  2. ^ Malley, Ern. "Egyptian Register". O those dawn-waders, cold-sea-gazers, The long-shanked ibises that on the Nile Told one hushed peasant of rebirth Move in a calm immortal frieze On the mausoleum of my incestuous And self-fructifying death.  line feed character in |quote= at position 38 (help)
  3. ^ Rainey, David. Ern Malley: The Hoax and Beyond. Melbourne: Heide Museum of Modern Art, 2009. ISBN 978-1-9213-3010-0, pp. 24–26. 'But I believed in Ern Malley. In all simplicity and faith I believed such a person existed, and I believed it for months before the newspapers threw their banner headlines at me.' Harris wrote this in the 1952 first issue of "Ern Malley's Journal" when reviewing Wolfgang Borchert's book "The Man Outside". Harris also said 'I was offered not only the poems of this mythical Ern Malley, but also his life, his ideas, his love, his disease, and his death … in Rookwood cemetery. Most of you probably don't think about the story of Ern Malley's life. It got lost in the explosive revelation of the hoax. … For me Ern Malley embodies the true sorrow and pathos of our time. One had felt that somewhere in the streets of every city was an Ern Malley … in Hamburg, Vienna, Rome, Cleveland, Bombay … a living person, alone, outside literary cliques, outside print, dying, outside humanity but of it.' Harris's words are perhaps the most poignant and compelling in all written about the hoax and its aftermath.
  4. ^ "Ern Malley: The Hoax and Beyond". aCOMMENT. Retrieved 24 July 2014. 
  5. ^ a b Samela Harris (2012): A life of books – and Mary Martin's AdelaideNow, 2 September 2012. Accessed 5 February 2014.
  6. ^ "Angry Penguin: Selected Poems of Max Harris"., National Library of Australia. 11 September 2000. Retrieved 13 September 2008.  External link in |publisher= (help)

External links[edit]