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The Ern Malley Caper

Updated on May 3, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

James McAuley

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Harold Stewart

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Max Harris

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Angry Penguins

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Brief History of the Hoax

The Ern Malley affair is one the most important literary hoaxes of the 20th century. It grew out of a hatred of and the desire to debunk the avant-garde style of modernism.

In October 1943 on a Saturday, two traditional poets, Lieutenant James McAuley and Corporal Harold Stewart, in their offices at the Victoria Barracks of the Australian Army in Melbourne, Australia, hatched a plan to expose the bankruptcy of the modernist avant-garde trend of literature in British, Australian, and world poetry.

They targeted the publication titled Angry Penguins and one of the editors, Max Harris. As the legend would have it, within a few hours on that ordinary Saturday, the two young army men slapped together sixteen poems by collecting strings of words from the books and magazines that lay on their desks. Then they delivered a fictitious poet from the womb of mischief and named him "Ern Malley," a take-off on the French word "mal" meaning bad.

Ethel Submits Erm's Poems for Publication

Next, they invented a sister and called her Ethel, dreamed up a melancholy biography for the deceased auto mechanic turned insurance salesman poet, which Ethel would narrate, and they were all set.

From the hands of Ethel, they posted ole Ern's poems and biography to the magazine Angry Penguins. Max Harris flipped over the poems, as did the other editors, and a special edition of Angry Penguins carried the fake poems and the fake biography of a fake poet.

The two disgruntled poets, Lieutenant James McAuley and Corporal Harold Stewart, had accomplished their mission of showing the world that those who are taken in by the avant-garde, surrealistic drivel flowing from the pens of literary poetasters under the guise of modernism could be easily exposed by a real fake.

Hatred of Modernist Poetry

As poets, Lieutenant James McAuley and Corporal Harold Stewart had come to despise the poetry of Dylan Thomas, Henry Treece, and other modernist poets. McAuley and Stewart, therefore, deemed the entire modernist movement "pretentious nonsense."

The pair then hatched a plan to expose the nonsense. They believed that they could fool editors into publishing anything that smacked of the same "nonsense" they had been observing in literary mags.

They would write poems and submit them. They concocted three rules that the poets would follow as they composed their deliberately fake works:

1. There must be no coherent theme, at most, only confused and inconsistent hints at a meaning held out as a bait to the reader.

2. No care must be taken with verse technique, except occasionally to accentuate its general sloppiness by deliberate crudities.

3. In style, the poems were to imitate, not Mr. Harris in particular, but the whole literary fashion as was known from the works of Dylan Thomas, Henry Treece and others.

Based on these rules, the poems of Ern Malley were born.

Max Harris

The unfortunate Max Harris, who was not a bad poet, and whose early poems were, in fact, quite traditional in form, faced a court trial for publishing the Ern Malley poems, which were considered obscene. Harris paid a fine, and his jail time was suspended.

Still Harris' reputation was less sullied than that of the Malley creators. Actually, McAuley and Stewart simply suffered from anonymity, with their only claim to fame being the Ern Malley affair.

Complicated but Fascinating Tale

There is much more to this convoluted caper, including intriguing biographical information about all the parties involved. Michael Heyward's The Ern Malley Affairsheds light on the entire caper. The Ern Malley complete poems are offered here.

Related article: "The Araki Yasusada Hoax"

Professor David Brooks - The Ern Malley Hoax

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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