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 The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1917) was genius, but the subsequent The 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.
Harris was a 22-year-old avant-garde poet and critic in Adelaide, who in 1940, at the age of 18, had started Angry Penguins.
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 "Ernest Lalor Malley", who, they claimed, had died the year before at the age of 25. The name is a "highly Australian-sounding handle": "Malley" is a pun on the word mallee, denoting a class of Australian vegetation and a bird, the native malleefowl, and "Lalor" recalls Peter Lalor, leader of the 1854 Eureka Rebellion. 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The first poem in the sequence, Durer: Innsbruck, 1495, was an unpublished serious effort by McAuley, edited to appeal to Harris:
David Brooks theorises 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. However, Stewart claimed to have never heard of Floupette at the time of the Ern Malley hoax, and there is no evidence McAuley had either.
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 death at the age of 25 on 23 July of that same year.
Malley's life as a poet became known only after his sister Ethel (another fictitious creation of McAuley and Stewart) found a pile of unpublished poems among his belongings. These poems featured a brief preface, which explained that they had been composed over a period of five years, but it left no instructions as to what was to be done with them. Ethel Malley supposedly knew nothing about poetry, but showed the poems to a friend, who suggested that she send the poems to someone who could examine them. Max Harris of Angry Penguins was to be that someone.
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 1944 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.
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.
After the hoax was revealed, McAuley and Stewart wrote:
Mr. Max Harris and other Angry Penguins writers represent an Australian outcrop of a literary fashion which has become prominent in England and America. 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, 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 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. There have been at least 20 publications of the Darkening Ecliptic, either complete or partial. It has reappeared – not only in Australia, but in London, Paris, Lyons, Kyoto, New York and Los Angeles – with a regularity that would be the envy of any real Australian poet.
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.
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."
The American poet John Ashbery said of Ern Malley, in a 1988 interview in the magazine Jacket:
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.
Two exhibitions by major exhibitions by major Australian galleries have been based on Ern Malley. In 1974 the Art Gallery of South Australia’s Adelaide Festival Exhibitions included the Sidney Nolan exhibition "Ern Malley and Paradise Garden". The 2009 exhibition "Ern Malley: The Hoax and Beyond" at Heide Museum of Modern Art was the first exhibition to thoroughly investigate the genesis, reception and aftermath of the hoax.
The final irony is enduring fame: Malley is better known and more widely read today than either McAuley or Stewart.