Malley, Ern

Ern Malley was an Australian poet and artist, the joint creation of writers James McAuley and Harold Stewart. McAuley and Stewart created Malley as a hoax aimed at editor Max Harris and his Melbourne-based modernist literary magazine Angry Peguins, which they considered pretentious.

Ernest Lalor Malley came into being one day in 1943, when McAuley and Stewart sat down on a whim to write a group of poems designed to be read as the work of an undiscovered genius. They sent the poems to Harris accompanied by a letter purportedly from Ern Malley's sister Ethel, disclosing that they had been found among Malley's belongings after his death the previous year at the age of 24. Very taken with the poems, Harris wrote an enthusiastic reply to Ethel Malley stating his interest in publishing the poems—there were 17 altogether, collected under the title The Darkening Ecliptic—and asking for biographical details of the poet's life. McAuley and Stewart obliged with a second, long letter from Ethel that painted a picture of Malley as a reclusive loner not much in touch with his sister, thus providing a convenient context for the fact that information about Malley was both scarce and hard to substantiate. Indeed, it is arguable that Ethel Malley— judgmental, snobbish, given to platitudes, and uncomprehending of anything remotely 'artistic'—is a richer and subtler invention than Ern Malley, who conforms to the type of the tragic boy genius.

Writers and critics to whom Harris showed the poems prior to their publication in Angry Penguins were divided over their quality; some thought them derivative, while others agreed with Harris that they were brilliant. There is some evidence that Harris and his co-editor Reed may have been as taken by the romance of Ern Malley's short, sad life as by the poems themselves; Reed writes of Malley in a letter to Harris, "He looms up as a strange and ... somewhat sinister figure." [1]

Malley's poems were published in Angry Penguins in early June 1944  (technically in the 'Autumn' issue); together with together with an introduction by Harris and other notes, they comprised a third of the  journal's hundred-odd pages. They immediately prompted speculation of a hoax and spawned a frenzied game of 'hunt the poet' in Australian literary circles. On June 18th, Fact (the literary supplement of the Melbourne Sunday Sun) published the first of a two-part article exposing details of the Ern Malley hoax and promising to reveal the perpetrators in the following installment. In the event, however, they were forestalled by another publication which published Stewart and McAuley's names first.

[1] Michael Heyward, The Ern Malley Affair, p. 167.
[2] Stewart and McAuley also created a group of about a dozen Surrealist collages with the intention of sending these to Harris as further evidence of Malley's genius, but they didn't follow through on this, possibly because the hoax unraveled so quickly.
[3] Heyward, p. 87.

Michael Heyward, The Ern Malley Affair