The Ern Malley Affair
The Ern Malley Affair was the greatest literary hoax of the twentieth century.
Ern Malley is one of Australia’s best-known poets. And a complete fabrication.
In 1943 two conservative Australian poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, set out to deliberately discredit and humiliate the modernist poet, Max Harris. Max Harris was co-editor of the modernist art and literary journal, ‘Angry Penguins’.
McAuley and Stewart created 16 poems in a modernist style, allegedly in one afternoon. They sent the poems to Max Harris, along with a letter signed ‘Ethel Malley’. The letter claimed that the poems were the work of Ethel's brother, Ern Malley, a car mechanic who had recently died.
Harris thought the poems were works of genius. He dedicated an entire issue of ‘Angry Penguins’ to them, complete with a cover painted by artist Sidney Nolan. But the poems were quickly exposed as fakes.
Harris was publicly vilified, put on trial for publishing ‘indecent’ literary works, convicted and fined. The scandal left Harris’ reputation and career in tatters and damaged the Australian modernist poetry movement for decades.
Ironically, these days, Ern Malley’s poetry is better known than either McAuley’s or Stewart’s.