Saturday 11 February 1995
Max Harris was a jack of all trades in the Australian literary world. He was at different times an avant-garde poet, a publisher, a magazine editor, a journalist and a bookseller, but he was never far from controversy. As a young man he described himself as "harsh, scraping people's sensibilities" and, although the adolescent modernist later became an unapologetic populist, Harris always cultivated his knack of rubbing people up the wrong way.
Harris was a poet first and last, who loved words for their sensuous, seductive properties. He started out imitating Dylan Thomas and even after he found his own voice the lyric poet in him never died. His journalism was quite different: it was opinionated and hard-hitting. For more than a quarter of a century, from 1964 until illness forced his retirement in 1992, he used his weekly column, "Browsing", in Rupert Murdoch's Australian to hold forth on just about everything. Harris was a stirrer, a barracker and a bruiser who, in a country famous for the way its writers and artists brawl in public, relished using his pen to prick egos. He named "poppy- lopping" as his preferred recreation. He knew something about this, having been a tall poppy who was lopped more savagely than most when he fell victim during the Second World War to the legendary "Ern Malley" poetry hoax.
Harris was born in Mount Gambier, a coastal town in the south-east of South Australia. He was Jewish, the son of a butcher. In the mid-Thirties he won a scholarship to the prestigious St Peter's College in Adelaide. He flourished there, a handy footballer and schoolboy poet who went on to cut a flamboyant figure at Adelaide University in 1939. With his oval face and high forehead, wiry black hair and soft deep eyes, he seemed the image of a romantic poet. He was, he announced to the world, an anarchist and a Surrealist who would demonstrate the fact in his own verse and in Angry Penguins, a magazine he helped establish in 1941.
Harris began his editing career with a bang. In 1943 he joined forces with a wealthy Melbourne solicitor, John Reed, his wife Sunday and the painter Sidney Nolan. Together this quartet became the Angry Penguins brains trust, though Harris and John Reed were the offical co-editors and proprietors of a fledgling publishing house. Modernism, it seemed, had arrived in Australia: throughout the war the magazine sponsored an important new school of painters, and published writers ranging from Dylan Thomas and Henry Treece to George Woodcock, an anarchist disciple of Herbert Read.
By the end of 1943 Harris felt he was on the verge of "big things". He had published two books of Surrealist poetry, The Gift of Blood and Dramas from the Sky, and a stream-of- consciousness novel, The Vegetative Eye. He had done so much so quickly: literary glory lay before him. In late October that year he found in his mail a letter from a woman called Ethel Malley enclosing some poetry she claimed to have found among the personal effects of her brother Ern, an itinerant motor-mechanic and watch repairer who had tragically died of Graves' disease at the age of 25. Harris enthusiastically corresponded with Ethel and in June 1944 published the collected works of Ern Malley in a triumphant special issue of Angry Penguins. To say Harris staked his critical reputation on Malley is an understatement. The 23-year-old editor believed he had discovered the great lost poet of Australian literature.
The brilliant, savage truth was exposed almost immediately. Two Sydney poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, neither of them much older than Harris and both in the army, were identified as the creators of Ern and Ethel Malley. The pair had, they said, concocted Ern's 16 poems in the space of a single afternoon as a spoof on modernism, especially on the Angry Penguins brand of portentous free association. It was a devastating attack because it came from an unexpected quarter: not from the hidebound philistine society Harris had grown up in but from two fellow writers.
The hoax was an international media sensation for a week or so. Harris was skewered by the popular press, but the Angry Penguins, supported by Herbert Read who sent an encouraging cable, tried to defend the worth of Malley's verse. Even though Harris later talked about the "excesses, absurdities and intolerable posturings" of the Angry Penguins, he never recanted on Malley. (The controversy about the value of the poetry rages in Australia to this day, but fans of Malley seem lately to have taken the upper hand.)
Perhaps the greatest indignity Harris suffered in the whole affair came in September 1944 when he was successfully prosecuted in a risible Adelaide trial for publishing indecent material, namely the Ern Malley poems, and fined £5. It was another three decades before the hoax poetry could be published in South Australia without the risk of legal intervention.
In 1946 Harris resigned as co-editor of Angry Penguins, which promptly collapsed. He abandoned his role as an avant-gardist and became a prominent bookseller. In the Fifties he was briefly co-editor of an ill- fated magazine, Ern Malley's Journal, and later he helped to found and edit the much more successful Australian Letters and Australian Book Review. In the Sixties he presented The Critics, a discussion programme on ABC television, and helped set up Sun Books, a lively Australian paperback imprint.
In 1961 Harris brought Ern Malley's poetry back into print and thereafter sponsored new editions up until his death. He continued to write poetry himself but rarely published. "You're vulnerable in your poetry," he said. "I don't want it to be available to those who don't wish me particularly well." Ern Malley became Harris's scarlet letter, which he wore with a mixture of pride and affection. He outgrew the hoax but it deeply marked him. At the height of the fuss he felt his isolation keenly, and in many ways he kept the world at a distance for the rest of his life.
Harris was a vigorous, genial man, who loved the cut and thrust of public debate, but he was also intensely private. I met him only a few times but will remember the old man I saw in 1988 at the launch of a new edition of the Ern Malley poems. As an actor recited the lines Harris, plump and elegant, rocked back and forth on his silver cane, smiling to himself and mouthing the words: "Here the Tree weeps gum tears / Which are also real: I tell you / These things are real."
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