Arcadia (Australian Scholarly Publishing), 2015, 518 pages
Review by Phil Shannon
In combining commerce and literature, Max Harris acted on the advice of his Adelaide University economics professor to ‘become a businessman and write poetry on the side’, says the art historian, Betty Snowden, in her biography of Australia’s controversial modernist poet, columnist, bookseller and publisher.
Before enlisting in the world of commerce, however, writes Harris, ‘I was in the communist business’ at Adelaide’s prestigious St. Peters’ College where ‘I went around collecting money for Republican Spain’ in the 1930s. The scholarship boy of humble origins took great proletarian delight in outraging ‘the State’s Best Families’ at the elite secondary school.
Harris’ distaste for right wing class prejudice continued at university and earned him a dunking in the River Torrens by conservative students who objected to one of Harris’ leaflets criticising the anti-communist Prime Minister, Robert Menzies. Harris’ solace, as always, was literature – after digging latrines as an undergraduate conscript to the Citizen’s Military Force during the war, Harris would hide in them to read Proust.
Complementing his political non-conformity, Harris promoted a literary radicalism of avant-garde poetry, writing and art. Adelaide’s staid cultural establishment did not take kindly to Harris and the new artistic wave. The Advertiser panned Harris’ poetry (which could, in truth, be intimidatingly obscure) as full of ‘turgid profundities’ and ‘tangles of surrealist imagery’ but it was the ‘Ern Malley’ hoax which subdued Harris.
In 1943, three conservative poets, one of them James McAuley, the “stridently anti-modernist and anti-communist” founding editor of the CIA-funded Australian cultural magazine, Quadrant, hoaxed Harris’ literary magazine, Angry Penguins, with a parody of modernist poetry, concocted from unrealted phrases culled from random books and presented as the work of ‘Ern Malley’, a fictitious mechanic and insurance-peddler.
In part, as the perpetrators claimed, the hoax was a ‘serious literary experiment’ which probed the weaknesses of modernism but it was also ideologically driven and, as Snowden observes, a “cruel trick” to play on the 23-year-old cultural experimenter.
The Ern Malley affair turned from embarrassment to potential prison-time when the state prosecuted Harris for obscenity, alleging that the poems were indecent and ‘suggestive of sexual intercourse’. It was a moral witch-hunt driven by the Catholic right from which Harris escaped with a fine.
Poetry and literary journals were never going to pay Harris’ bills or court costs so he took to bookselling, using aggressive discounting, cheap remaindered books and an extensive mail-order business, to turn Adelaide’s iconic Mary Martin’s bookshop from a convivial cultural hub for poor artists and uni students into a national, commercial book-chain.
Not everyone was pleased by this foray into cultural corporatism. Despite Harris’ social progressivism and poppy-lopping egalitarianism (he called the pedestal-dwelling Menzies a ‘towering non-entity’), the left were suspicious. The Communist Party member and novelist, Judah Waten, in response to a politically hostile book review in one of Harris’ magazines, let rip against Harris (who could come across as a bit of a toff with his silver-topped cane and elite social circle) as ‘Quick Quid Maxie, the pet of the reactionary-moneyed highbrows’.
A full appreciation of Harris, who died in 1995, struggles to surface, however, from Snowden’s book, which is more a collection of letters strung together with lists (of house and bookshop locations, articles and acquaintances) than a synthesis of the raw biographical data. The Harris that Snowden doesn’t quite pin down was ideologically eclectic (Rupert Murdoch gave him news-space for over two decades) and capable of both profundity and populism but stuffy convention was always his target.
Harris’ own self-assessment of initiating the ‘creative flowering and ideological renewal of a rather brutish and proudly anti-intellectual minor nation’ is close to the mark. There was much in conservative Australia that could do with a vigorous shake-up and Harris did his colourful bit. The millionaire entrepreneur and cultural provocateur, remained, at heart, ‘a stirrer’. He deserves to be remembered as more than just the dupe of the Ern Malley hoax.