James McAuley spent his early years in the working-class Sydney suburb of Homebush - these are reflected in the series of autobiographical poems 'On the Western Line' written later in life. He was educated at the prestigious Fort Street High School, winning a scholarship to Sydney University where he gained an MA for a thesis on symbolism in poetry. He was an outstanding student, School Captain and University medallist, involved with poetry, literary groups and magazines, a flamboyant character whose talents as a jazz pianist in university revues earned him the nick-name 'Honky-tonk McAuley'.
After a period as a school-teacher, McAuley was drafted for war service with the Australian Army Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs. This began his involvement with New Guinea which provided the impetus for his conversion to Catholicism in 1952 and had 'profound effects on his thinking about religion, politics, social systems, and the function of art' (Leonie Kramer, James McAuley). It was also during the war that McAuley and fellow poet Harold Stewart perpetrated the Ern Malley hoax, essentially a protest against 'modernity' in poetry. By the end of the war the key elements in McAuley's personal philosophy were clear -Catholicism, classicism in literature and conservatism in politics and education - beliefs which continued to inform his life and work.
From 1946 McAuley held academic positions at the Australian School of Pacific Administration. In 1960 he joined the University of Tasmania, first as Reader in poetry and then Professor of English. He was closely involved with Catholic, anti-communist politics, was founding editor of Quadrant, which he edited from 1956-1963, president of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English, 1970-1975, and inspired the establishment of Australian Literary Studies.
During the last two decades of his life McAuley's poetry underwent a change in tone and focus, becoming more lyrical and confessional, often intensely engaged with the physical landscape of Tasmania. The later poems written during McAuley's period of illness with cancer have an austere grace and elegiac beauty and 'an exquisitely keen sense of life and its fragility' ( McAuley, A Map Of Australian Verse).
McAuley achieved international standing as an anthropologist and intellectual and a reputation as gifted and charismatic teacher, a promoter of the national literature, an incisive critic and 'one of the three or four best known and deservedly eminent poets in Australia' (Les Murray, The Peasant Mandarin p.185). However he remains a complex and controversial figure. Sympathetic and thorough examination of his poetry has been by-passed in favour of sensational, speculative concentration on his personality and politics and he is remembered most for his part in the Ern Malley hoax and for his uncompromising conservatism in politics, literature and religion.