Literature courses at Adelaide University during the late 1930s offered a traditional curriculum steeped in the writing of well-known figures of the past. Students wishing to discuss contemporary fiction and poetry were left to their own devices. Frustrated by this institutional indifference to major developments in literature and art and prompted by the demise of the student magazine Phoenix, a small group of students, headed by the precocious young poet Max Harris, established a magazine devoted to modernism. Called Angry Penguins, the magazine was published as 'an act of defiance.'
The first issue of Angry Penguins, edited by Harris and D. B. Kerr, was funded by Harris's mother, according to popular belief. This is not correct, by the account of John Miles, who has specialised in a study of the main players; rather, the idea 'grew from the fact that Harris's mother paid to have copies of the first edition of Angry Penguins, and two subsequent editions, the last edition of Phoenix, and some Jindyworobak publications, all containing her son's poems, expensively rebound together.' The University of Adelaide Arts Association and faculty members such as C.R. Jury and J.I.M. Stewart bore the cost of launching Angry Penguins, and supported two further editions.
The name, Angry Penguins. was the inspiration of the journal's patron, Charles Jury and came from Harris's poem, 'Mithridatum of Despair':
We know no mithridatum of despair
as drunks, the angry penguins of the night
straddling the cobbles of the square
tying a shoelace by fogged lamplight
Jury thought the description of 'angry penguins' suited the young poets on their revolutionary literary quest and a quotation from the poem appeared on the title page of the inaugural issue.The first four issues of Angry Penguins were printed in Adelaide and appeared annually, restricted in part by war-time paper rationing. According to Max Harris, the magazine had a 'Europeanizing policy'. The editors looked to the French symbolists and German impressionists as major influences, printing translations and articles on a variety of French and German writers. In addition to Max Harris, writers whose work appeared in Angry Penguins included Peter Cowan and Geoffrey Dutton. In later issues, the visual arts were represented by reproductions of the works of emerging artists like Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd. Self-consciously modernist, the magazine was attracted to anything that presented itself as avant garde, drawing adverse comment from a number of magazines, including the Catholic Advocate and the Communist Tribune.
When the fourth number appeared in 1943, John Reed was the Collaborating Editor for the Arts Section. A striking James Gleeson painting appeared on the front cover, marking a change in format that included a greater number of reproductions. From 1944, Angry Penguins was printed in Melbourne where Harris and Reed had established themselves as publishers. Harris returned to Adelaide soon after, but he continued to edit the magazine from there.Angry Penguins began as a 50-page annual. It reached a maximum size of 182 pages in 1945, but the Autumn 1944 number has become best-known as the site of a sensational literary hoax.
Intending to reveal the aesthetic weaknesses of the modernist movement, the poets James McAuley and Harold Stewart playfully grafted a series of poems from various sources, including the Concise Oxford Dictionary, a collection of Shakespeare's plays, a Dictionary of Quotations, Ripman's Rhyming Dictionary and an American report on the drainage of swamps. Attributed to the fictional author Ern Malley, the poems were sent to Max Harris with a letter from the poet's 'sister'. When Harris heralded Ern Malley as an Australian genius in the Autumn number, he had set himself up for ridicule when it became widely-known that Stewart and McAuley had perpetrated the hoax. This was exacerbated when Harris was prosecuted by the South Australian police for publishing indecent material in the form of some of the Ern Malley poems and a story by Peter Cowan. As a result of the controversy, the modernist movement received a major setback in Australia and the more conservative elements were subsequently strengthened.
The last number of Angry Penguins appeared in 1946, but the debate over modernism and particularly the value of Ern Malley's poems continued. Harris and Reed published the short-lived Ern Malley's Journal in the 1950s, continuing their promotion of contemporary cultural and intellectual movements. And, despite the hoax, the Ern Malley poems have been collected in several editions. But, the continued focus on the Ern Malley poems has often diverted attention from the broader contribution that Angry Penguins has made to the development of Australian literature.
'In a famous study, The Australian Legend, first published in 1958, Russel Ward argued that the bush legend was the central foundation story that explained the evolution of Australian character and nationalism. Ward's version of the legend explained how from convict times onwards itinerant bush workers had created and adhered to an ethos that encompassed mateship, anti-authoritarianism (including hostility to Britain and its empire), egalitarianism, and adaptability. Although the bush legend allegedly originated with and was nurtured by a bush proletariat, Ward proposed that this regional ethos became a national creed at the turn of the 20th century, transmitted from rural to urban Australia through conduits that included the trade union movement, periodicals like The Bulletin, and the work of writers like Lawson and Paterson. (Publication abstract)