Australian Poets Claim Responsibility for a Literary Hoax

Regarded by some as the greatest literary fraud of the twentieth century, the Ern Malley hoax, perpetrated by two Australian soldiers who also were poets, not only raised serious questions about literary authenticity but also led to an obscenity trial that represented the first bureaucratic effort in Australian history to censor poetry. Malley’s enduring fame as a “poet” has outlived the hoax.

Summary of Event

Ern Malley was a fictional poet fabricated by Australian soldier-poets James McAuley and Harold Stewart. For a concocted collection of sixteen poems, McAuley and Stewart also created biographical details for this fictional author, including that he had a sister named Ethel Malley. The duo, fierce critics of modern poetry, then sent two poems from this collection, accompanied by a cover letter from Ethel, to Maxwell Henley Harris, coeditor of the Australian literary journal Angry Penguins, based at the University of Adelaide in South Australia. [kw]Literary Hoax, Australian Poets Claim Responsibility for a (June 5, 1944)
McAuley, James
Stewart, Harold
Harris, Maxwell Henley
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McAuley, James
Stewart, Harold
Harris, Maxwell Henley
Poetry;Koolmatrie hoax
Ern Malley hoax
[g]Australasia;June 5, 1944: Australian Poets Claim Responsibility for a Literary Hoax[00740]
[g]Australia;June 5, 1944: Australian Poets Claim Responsibility for a Literary Hoax[00740]
[c]Hoaxes, frauds, and charlatanism;June 5, 1944: Australian Poets Claim Responsibility for a Literary Hoax[00740]
[c]Literature;June 5, 1944: Australian Poets Claim Responsibility for a Literary Hoax[00740]
[c]Law and the courts;June 5, 1944: Australian Poets Claim Responsibility for a Literary Hoax[00740]
[c]Publishing and journalism;June 5, 1944: Australian Poets Claim Responsibility for a Literary Hoax[00740]
Reed, John

In a statement issued to Sydney’s Fact tabloid on June 5, 1944, McAuley and Stewart claimed they wrote the poems according to three rules they developed. First, submitted poems must have no coherent theme, only disordered and incoherent allusions to meaning. Second, poems must not adhere to verse technique, aside from deliberately highlighting the technique’s shoddiness. Third, poems must be stylistically imitative of literary trends as characterized by the works of T. S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, and Henry Treece, among other nontraditionalist poets of the 1940’s.

McAuley and Stewart also claimed that they devised Malley’s poems in part to discredit the poetic productivity of Eliot, Thomas, Treece, and to determine whether Harris and his colleagues, whom the pair despised, could discriminate between “real” poetry and poetry that was simply an assemblage of “garish images without coherent meaning and structure.” The answer came that first week of June, when Harris took delivery of two hundred issues of Angry Penguins and began distributing them to bookshops in Adelaide. This issue included sixteen poems representing Malley’s life work. One thousand copies of the edition, with the theme “The Darkening Ecliptic,” were sold—five hundred in Australia and the remainder in England and the United States. The edition sold out, and the publication has since become a collector’s item.

Harris gave one copy of “The Darkening Ecliptic” to Elliott, Brian Robinson Brian Robinson Elliott, one of Harris’s former university lecturers, on June 9, and had him read the work. While Elliott was right in deducing that the poems were fraudulent, he wrongly concluded that the true author was Harris. Elliot’s suspicions were published in an edition of the University of Adelaide’s newspaper, On Dit, on June 16. It was following this issue that Harris and fellow Angry Penguins editor John Reed hired the services of a private detective agency to discover the truth about Malley.

One person who claimed to know the identities of the real hoaxers was a friend of Stewart, Tess van Sommers, who worked as an aspiring reporter for Sydney’s Sunday Sun. Stewart, without McAuley’s knowledge, had confessed off the record to Sommers in February, 1944, that both he and McAuley had orchestrated the Ern Malley affair. Sommers falsely assumed she was free to publicize the truth about Malley once she saw the “Darkening Ecliptic” issue of Angry Penguins on a magazine stand in Sydney. Sommers’s scoop was taken over by her senior, Colin Simpson. Simpson was the editor of Fact, the magazine supplement to the Sunday Sun. The identities of the hoaxers became front-page news in the June 18 edition of Fact.

Simpson’s exposé emerged the same day the Mail in Adelaide reported a rumor that the real author of the Malley poems was John Innes Mackintosh Stewart. Stewart was a professor of language and literature at Adelaide University who often wrote mystery stories under the pseudonym Michael Innes.

On the afternoon of August 1, editor Harris was questioned in Adelaide by Detective Jacobus Andries Vogelesang about the “Darkening Ecliptic” issue. Harris, then only twenty-three years old, was subsequently charged with publishing “indecent advertisements” (the Malley poems) in the magazine. At the obscenity trial on September 5, a representative of the Crown Solicitor’s Department claimed the offense was a breach of the Police Act. The representative quoted extensively from seven of Malley’s poems. The remaining nine were labeled as “indecent, immoral, or obscene.” Defense lawyer Eric Millhouse cross-examined Detective Vogelesang during the trial, and Vogelesang’s evidence caused a sensation. Vogelesang testified that the reference to genitals in the poem “Egyptian Register” was indecent and immoral, as were the allusions to sexual intercourse he detected in “Sweet William,” “Boult to Marina,” and “Perspective Lovesong,” among other poems. Vogelesang testified that even though he did not know the meaning of the word “incestuous,” he did believe there was a suggestion of indecency about the word.

The laughter emanating from the gallery during and following Vogelesang’s testimony prompted Stipendary Magistrate (judge) L. C. Clarke to threaten to evict from the courtroom those responsible for outbursts. Vogelesang confessed under cross-examination by Millhouse that he had read Malley’s poems only to prepare for questioning Harris. On October 20, Clarke found Harris guilty of publishing obscene material and fined him five pounds in lieu of six weeks imprisonment.


Although the Ern Malley hoax inspired much debate about the politics of authorship and modernist notions of poetry in Australia, the affair also brought the question of copyright to the fore. Clearly, the poems were written by someone, but who retained the right of ownership? Did it rest with coauthors McAuley and Stewart? Did it remain with the fictional author Malley? Or did the right of ownership rest with the editor of Angry Penguins, Harris, the person to whom the fictional Ethel Malley had relinquished the poems? Ethel had, in a letter, “given” Harris total rights and full permission over the publication and use of the poems, without the expectation of financial reward.

McAuley was perhaps the most successful of the key figures to survive the backlash of the Ern Malley hoax. He would become founding editor of Quadrant magazine in Australia, an anticommunist journal publishing literature, poetry, and cultural criticism (established in 1956) and was later elected a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities in 1969. In 1972, he won the Britannica Award for achievement in the humanities. Stewart would publish several books of poetry, including one on haiku, and lived in Kyoto, Japan, for the last thirty years of his life.

Aside from the question of ownership, and the damaging influence the Ern Malley hoax exerted on Harris’s credibility, Harris, too, remained a key figure in Australia’s literary world. Ironically, he would ensure the future of the Ern Malley collection, sponsoring the publication of Australia’s first edition of the Malley poems in seventeen years (Lansdowne Press, 1961). His introduction also appears in the special edition of the Malley poems released by the Adelaide Festival of the Arts in 1974. Later, in March, 1988, Harris launched another edition of the poems, this time in book form and published by Allen & Unwin Australia.

Finally, despite McAuley’s and Stewart’s insistence that the Malley collection was utterly devoid of literary merit as poetry, the poems remain the compelling subjects of critical and stylistic study by students and scholars alike. Many consider the hoax to have been a significant form of literary criticism in itself, and according to critic David Lehman, the poems are so lastingly brilliant because “Malley escaped the control of his creators and enjoyed an autonomous existence beyond, and at odds with, the critical and satirical intentions of McAuley and Stewart. They succeeded better than they had known, or wished.” McAuley, James
Stewart, Harold
Harris, Maxwell Henley
Poetry;Koolmatrie hoax
Ern Malley hoax

Further Reading

  • Heyward, Michael. The Ern Malley Affair: The Literary Hoax of the Twentieth Century. New ed. Milsons Point, N.S.W.: Random House Australia, 2003. This is a carefully researched account of the Ern Malley hoax that includes illustrations, commentary, endnotes, and a section with poems published in the “Darkening Ecliptic” issue of Angry Penguins.
  • Hornadge, Bill. Ern Malley and the “Angry Penguins”: Being a Review of the Greatest Hoax in Australia’s Literary History, and the Subsequent “Indecency Trial.” Adelaide: Thornquest Press, 1944. This contemporary account of the Ern Malley affair includes details about the hoax as printed by Fact, as well as commentary and an interpretation of a number of the poems by Brian Robinson Elliott.
  • Nolan, Maggie, and Carrie Dawson, eds. Who’s Who? Hoaxes, Imposture, and Identity Crises in Australian Literature. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2004. A wide-ranging examination of literary hoaxes and scandals specific to Australian literature. Includes discussion of the Ern Malley hoax.

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