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Maxwell Henley (Max) Harris (1921–1995)

Poet, editor and book publisher Max Harris has died in Adelaide after a long battle with cancer. He was 73.

Harris was the founder and proprietor of The Angry Penguins, a magazine in the '40s which promoted avant garde writing and painting. A literary rebel who fought for modernism, he fell victim to the most extraordinary literary hoax in Australia's history, the Ern Malley Affair.

In 1944, two young soldier poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, set out to bring down The Angry Penguins by writing and submitting what they believed were a collection of nonsense poems purportedly written by a non-existent but allegedly recently dead poet, Ern Malley.

Harris devoted an edition of The Angry Penguins to the Ern Malley poems, praising the splendid examples of dissociation in the works. The hoax became public knowledge — the rest is literary history.

In later years he became known for his television appearances on the arts and his regular column with The Australian newspaper.

Harris was joint partner and founder with Mr John Reed of Reed and Harris, a publisher of modern Australian poets, novelists and intellectuals between 1941 and 1945.

Maxwell Henley Harris was Australia's eternal enfant terrible. Regarded as the founding father of Australian modernism in the arts, the gadfly of Australian letters, Harris was raised in Mt Gambier, near the South Australian-Victorian border.

Educated, on a boarding scholarship at Adelaide's elite St Peter's College, Harris established himself as a poet during his junior school days as a regular contributor to the Sunday Mail's Possum's Pages for children.

"My destiny," he once wrote, "was not shaped by the Mt Gambier stars, nor by omens at birth, but by Possum's Pages in the Sunday Mail." Moving on to Adelaide University and influenced by poets such as Dylan Thomas, Harris's first book of poetry, The Gift of Blood, was published in 1940, followed by Dramas from the Sky in 1942 and his first and only novel, The Vegetative Eye, in 1943.

As war was declared in Europe, Harris declared his own war against literary oppression in Australia — from his anger came the concept for The Angry Penguins, originally a line in one of his poems, picked up by a lecturer, intrigued by the similarity between angry penguins and drunken, angry young men in dinner suits.

Harris, who, in later life, listed his hobby as poppy-lopping, became one of Australia's tallest poppies ever lopped, through his publication and penning of poetry that did not fit the conservative image.

In the wake of Ern Malley and a subsequent 5 fine for publishing "obscene" articles, Harris moved to Melbourne. Harris and Reed publishers did not publish his own poems for another 10 years but became the champion of young writers and painters.

Returning to Adelaide in the late 1940s, Harris went into partnership with a university friend and Australia's most famous book selling venture, the Mary Martin Bookshop chain began, expanding into an international business. During the glittering days of the Don Dunstan era of the 1970s, Harris's acerbic writings in the Sunday Mail were a constant source of aggravation to the then South Australian Premier, who himself had been published in Harris-edited literary magazines.

Harris became a audacious and fearless spokesman on everything; no subject was too large or too small for his opinion, no-one was safe. Not even Australia's sacred were sacrosanct.

He wrote The Land that Waited 1967, The Vital Decade (jointly) 1968, The Angry Eye, 1973, The Unknown Great Australian 1983, The Best of Max Harris 1987, The Australian Way with Words 1989 and at the same time became the most painted Australian of the 20th century.

Harris in his last years said he was comfortable with his extraordinary life and said his essential pleasure was to have lived in this country.

"I may have been an awful young shit, but I'm not a terrible old shit," he said.

Harris is survived by his wife, former dancer Yvonne Hutton, and his daughter Samela.

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'Harris, Maxwell Henley (Max) (1921–1995)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 June 2024.

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