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Maxwell Henley (Max) Harris (1921–1995)

by Betty Snowden

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Max Harris, by K Byron, Australian News and Information Bureau, 1969

Max Harris, by K Byron, Australian News and Information Bureau, 1969

National Archives of Australia, A1200:L79332

Maxwell Henley Harris (1921–1995), poet, editor, journalist, bookseller, and publisher, was born on 13 April 1921 at Henley Beach, Adelaide, only child of Victor Harris, salesman, and his wife Clarice Jean, née Moyse, who had been a typiste; both parents were South Australian born. When he was five the family moved to Mount Gambier, where Victor was a travelling smallgoods salesman. Max attended Mount Gambier primary and high schools. He was a clever student and in 1934 won a Vansittart scholarship, entitling him to three years as a boarder at the Collegiate School of St Peter, Adelaide.

At St Peter’s, Harris felt an outsider: a boy from the country from a low- to middle-class background. He detested the social mores of the school but was fortunate to have a sympathetic young English teacher, John Padman, and a forward-thinking headmaster, Guy Pentreath. Both were influential in his intellectual development; Padman in particular introduced him to the modern English poets and writers, including Dylan Thomas and T. S. Eliot. At first Harris was regularly bullied until, recognising that sporting achievements were highly valued, he proved himself as a first-rate footballer and runner. Excelling academically, he won over twenty prizes and several of his poems were published in the college magazine.

In 1937 Harris’s parents moved back to Adelaide so that he could continue as a day student. The next year he was a prefect and house captain, and served on the library and magazine committees. Family finances were insufficient for him to remain at the school, however, and he left in mid-1938 to work as a copyboy for the News. He studied at night to complete Leaving honours, and won the Tennyson medal for best English literature scholar in the State. A handsome young man with thick black wavy hair and dark brown eyes, he had caught the attention of fifteen-year-old Yvonne (Von) Ruby Hutton at a combined college ceremony at St Peter’s Cathedral and they were soon a devoted couple.

From 1939 to 1944 Harris studied arts and economics at the University of Adelaide, but did not complete a degree. During his first year he published poems in the university’s literary journal, Phoenix, and became the news reporter of the student newspaper, On Dit. In 1940 his first book of poetry, The Gift of Blood, was published. He worked as a cadet in the university library, was obsessed with modern literature and poetry, and was keen to share his knowledge with others. Yet he was also ambitious and made enemies through his precociousness and cocky manner. In 1941 he won the Bundey prize for English verse. On 23 April that year he enlisted in the Citizen Military Forces. Called up on 3 December for seventy days training, which he completed locally with the 48th and 10th battalions, he was discharged from the army on completion. Afterwards, he worked as a research officer with the university’s economics department on a social and housing survey for the Commonwealth Department of Post-war Reconstruction. He also became active in Common Cause, a movement that sought to mobilise community action during World War II and shape better social conditions in peacetime.

With a fellow student and poet, Donald Kerr, Harris had co-edited the first issue of Angry Penguins—an avant-garde journal with poetry written in a modernist style, including his own—published in February 1941. Assisted by a team of five sub-editors, they produced the second number in August (reprinted in September), exciting the literary community and drawing the attention of the Melbourne-based arts patrons John and Sunday Reed. John was collaborating arts editor of the fourth number and co-editor of issues five to nine. In 1943 he and Max formed the publishing house Reed & Harris, releasing numerous Australian books in addition to Angry Penguins. Intent on also publicising the work of emerging artists, they incorporated art images and articles on artists in the journal. Those featured included Arthur Boyd, (Sir) Sidney Nolan, John Perceval, Joy Hester, and Albert Tucker from Melbourne, as well as Douglas Roberts and Ivor Francis from Adelaide.

In 1942 Harris was a founding member of the South Australian branch of the Contemporary Art Society (president, 1943–44) and his second book of poetry, Dramas From the Sky, appeared. The next year his newly published surrealist novel, The Vegetative Eye, met with a bitter and savage critique by the poet A. D. Hope. Harris’s prominent role in advocating modernism had made him a target for those who disliked literature’s new directions. In October 1943 a plot was hatched by the conservative Sydney poets Harold Stewart and James McAuley to debunk what they viewed as the literary pretentions of modernist poetry. They concocted verse purported to be by a dead modernist poet, Ern Malley, and submitted it to Harris. Completely taken in, Harris devoted a special issue of Angry Penguins to Malley’s poems.

The deception was revealed on 25 June 1944 in Fact, a supplement of Sydney’s Sunday Sun and Guardian newspaper. A deeply shocked Harris maintained his equanimity and continued to vouch for the poetry’s merit, a stand he took throughout his life. However, the publicity drew the attention of the authorities to the journal and in September he appeared in the Adelaide Police Court, charged with publishing indecent matter. Found guilty, he chose to pay a five-pound fine in preference to six weeks in prison. The Ern Malley affair, as it became known, took on a life of its own as Australia’s best-known literary hoax.

In mid-1945 Max and Von moved to Melbourne where he and Reed published Angry Penguins Broadsheet and Tomorrow: The Outspoken Monthly. When Von became pregnant, she moved back to Adelaide to be with her parents. Max remained at work in Melbourne, returning for their marriage on 7 January 1946 at the office of the principal registrar, Adelaide. In October that year he suffered a serious breakdown. Relations with Reed had become increasingly fraught, exacerbated by his unhappiness at being separated from Von and their newborn child, and he returned to Adelaide.

Harris accepted the offer of Mary Martin, his university friend and former Angry Penguins business manager, to join her in running the Mary Martin Bookshop. Although he regretted relinquishing his role as a literary and arts editor, he threw himself into the bookselling business with creative energy and passion. In the early 1960s he purchased Martin’s interest in the business and was soon recognised as one of Australia’s best booksellers. An innovator, he pioneered the sale of remaindered books, organised regular book discounts, ran a highly successful mail order service, and produced a monthly magazine, Mary’s Own Paper (1950–61), that advertised his stock and commented on local social and cultural issues. As the business grew, he set up more bookshops in Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane. Significant also was his determined campaign to break the British and American stranglehold over publishers under the Traditional Market Agreement. With the end of the agreement in 1976, he was able to purchase and release American and British books into Australia at lower prices.

John Reed and Barrett Reid invited Harris to co-edit a new magazine, Ern Malley’s Journal, in 1952. He left the journal in 1955 and in the same year his third book of poetry, The Coorong and Other Poems, was published. Two years later he established his most important literary and art journal, Australian Letters (1957–68), with Bryn Davies, Geoffrey Dutton, and later Rosemary Wighton as co-editors. What set this journal apart was its series of poet-artist collaborations. Such pairings as David Campbell and (Sir) Russell Drysdale, Randolph Stow and Nolan, Dutton and Lawrence Daws, and Harris and Boyd, resulted in masterly creative works. In 1961 he founded Australian Book Review, devoted to critically reviewing Australian literature; it was welcomed by libraries, schools, and writers alike. He would cease its publication in 1974; however, others revived the journal in 1978.

Between 1960 and 1965 Harris chaired numerous media panels, including the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s The Critics, the first local television program discussing literature and the arts. In the same period he assisted in establishing Penguin Australia with Dutton and Brian Stonier, and then Sun Books (1965–71), both devoted to publishing home-grown works. In 1964 he was engaged to write a weekly column, ‘Browsing,’ for the newly established Australian newspaper. Over the next twenty-seven years, his stance and the subjects he tackled in his column were often deliberately controversial and many readers considered him arrogant. The column aroused great interest, some buying the Australian just to read what he had to say each week. The paper’s proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, observed that:

every society needs a Max, to identify its successes as well as its failures, its forlorn hopes and its lost causes. And also to shake it out of its smugness and hypocrisy, to act as a catalyst and an irritant. (1973)

In 1967 Harris published a further book of poetry, A Window at Night, and in the next year he and Dutton produced The Vital Decade, summarising ten years of Australian Letters. In 1974 he sold the Mary Martin Bookshop chain to the Macmillan Co. of Australia. For a time he remained as managing director. He was then employed as a consultant by Macmillan and divided his time between Britain, the United States of America, and Australia. In 1979 he published his final book of poetry, Poetic Gems. When later assessing his literary contribution, Alan Brissenden acknowledged that while ‘the fluency with words … never deserted him,’ the Malley incident had been pivotal, ‘turning him into a poet of sparer technique, and diverting his verbal prodigality into journalism’ (1996, xix–xx).

During the early 1970s Harris had visited Bali, Indonesia, and was shocked by the impoverished circumstances in which people lived. His desire to improve their conditions led him to return frequently over several years to learn about and financially support the work of the Catholic priest Anibal Oprandi, and Foster Parents Plan of Australia. Max and Von would sponsor nine children through the plan and he promoted the organisation’s work in advertising campaigns in Australia. Although not Catholic, he was an admirer of Mary MacKillop, and was an influential and enthusiastic advocate for her beatification and sainthood in newspaper articles he wrote from the mid-1980s. When he was diagnosed with membranous nephritis in 1989, the Sisters of St Joseph (founded by MacKillop) prayed for him, his family attributing his recovery to their prayers.

In late 1991, after further ill health, Harris was found to have advanced prostate cancer. Survived by his wife and their daughter, he died on 13 January 1995 at Daw Park, Adelaide, and was cremated. A memorial service was held in Bonython Hall at the University of Adelaide and his ashes were buried at Mary MacKillop Park, Kensington. A footpath plaque in his memory was placed along the cultural walk on The Parade, Norwood, and the National Library of Australia holds his portrait by Robert Hannaford. He had been appointed AO in 1989, and received the University of Adelaide alumni award in 1993. In 2018 he was inducted into the Australian Media Hall of Fame.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Barr Smith Library, University of Adelaide. MSS 92 H315p, Harris, Maxwell Henley (1921–1995), Papers 1935–2005
  • State Library of Victoria. MS 13186, Papers of John and Sunday Reed, 1924–1981
  • Brissenden, Alan. Introduction to The Angry Penguin: Selected Poems of Max Harris, vii–xx. Canberra: National Library of Australia, 1996
  • Harris Papers. Private collection
  • Harris, Samela. Personal communication
  • Harris, Von. Personal communication
  • Murdoch, Rupert. Introduction to The Angry Eye, by Max Harris. Sydney: Pergamon Press, 1973
  • National Archives of Australia. A6119, 2123
  • National Archives of Australia. B884, S27295
  • Snowden, Betty. Max Harris: With Reason, Without Rhyme. North Melbourne: Arcadia, 2015

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Betty Snowden, 'Harris, Maxwell Henley (Max) (1921–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2020, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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