Max Harris

1921-1995    |    South Australia    |    Columnist & Poet

Max Harris - journalist, poet and bookseller - helped shift Australian tastes in literature and art towards modernism. In 1940, he created a literary journal Angry Penguins that published progressive writers such as Dylan Thomas and later the works of artists such as Albert Tucker, Sidney Nolan, Joy Hester and Arthur Boyd. Harris had fierce critics amongst the establishment arts scene, two of whom conspired to set Harris up in a famous literary hoax. Harris later founded and co-edited the Australian Book Review and founded Sun Books. As a columnist in The Australian and Adelaide newspapers, he campaigned against censorship and was an early supporter of the Australian Republican movement.

I think every society needs a Max, to identify its successes as well as its failures, its forlorn hopes and its lost causes…But Max’s abrasive quality would lose its value if he did not write as wittily and well as he does.

Rupert Murdoch in his introduction to the 1973 collection The Angry Eye


Maxwell Henley Harris


“I am an Anarchist – So what?” proclaimed the 18-year-old Max Harris. No-one disagreed with him. But he went on to be much more. By the time he said that, he was an Arts and Economics Student at Adelaide University, had published his first book of poetry, The Gift of Blood, and been thrown into the River Torrens, just below the university, by a bunch of derisive students. It’s good to know that some of his friends saw it happening, raced down and threw in his assailants.

Maxwell Harris was born on 13 April 1921 at Henley Beach, Adelaide, hence his detested second name, Henley. In 1926 the family – he was the only child – moved to Mount Gambier, and he absorbed the region’s atmosphere and stories.

Winning a three-year scholarship to St Peter’s College in Adelaide where, as in Mt Gambier, his sensitivity and bookworm habits set him apart, he soon realised he could become accepted through sport. He excelled in football as he did academically, not only in English but also in other subjects including Scripture in which, he said, he was the only atheist to score one hundred per cent.

Harris won more than 20 academic and sporting prizes, became a prefect and house captain. He left halfway through his final year to get his first professional experience in journalism by becoming a copy boy at The News, Adelaide’s afternoon paper, then a broadsheet. He took his matriculation exam nevertheless, and won the Tennyson Medal, the top prize for English Language and Literature.

At university he revelled in notoriety, joined the Communist Party, spoke and wrote on surrealism. When interrupted reading a line describing drunken youths in evening dress as “angry penguins of the night”, his English Professor, Charles Jury, said: “That’s exactly what you young iconoclasts are – angry penguins!” The phrase became the title of the journal Max and six others published in February 1941.

Later issues were co-edited with John Reed, whose house Heide at Bulleen in Melbourne was already a hotbed of modernism. In June 1943 Reed & Harris publishing was established, and Max’s surrealist novel The Vegetative Eye appeared, to be overshadowed by Angry Penguins No. 6, which published the poems of Ern Malley, a non-existent modernist poet created by two conservative poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart.

Harris was fooled by the hoax, as were many others, though several supported him, including the English critic Herbert Read and Jury Professor of English J.I.M. Stewart. More seriously, Harris was charged with publishing an obscenity, and fined £5 with £21 and 11 shillings costs. He was 23. The trial lasted three days and he did not publish another book of poetry until 1955.

In 1946, Harris married Yvonne (Von) Hutton, and joined his university friend Mary Martin in her bookshop, founded a cyclostyled satirical journal, Mary’s Own Paper in 1950 and in 1952 co-edited the first of six issues of Ern Malley’s Journal. Revived, he published his third book of poetry, The Coorong and Other Poems in 1955 and two years later co-founded Australian Letters: a quarterly review of writing and criticism with academics Bryn Davies, Geoffrey Dutton and later Rosemary Wighton, commissioning paintings and overseas writers as well as Australians, including Patrick White.

Australian Book Review came next, in 1961, and in the same year Harris, Dutton and Brian Stonier set up Penguin Australia but, dissatisfied with the company, established the first Australian paperback firm, Sun Books, in 1965. This became Sun-Macmillan in 1973, Harris being Australian adviser to Macmillan. A year later he and Von sold Mary Martin’s to the London firm, ending nearly 30 years of Australia’s most imaginative bookselling, including introducing selling remainders – and making them relatively wealthy.

In 1976, they bought a rural property, Norwood Farm, in Surrey, and lived there until returning to Adelaide in 1980. During these years, Harris, who inherited his boundless energy from his father and his attachment to literature from his mother, had been adviser and chair for the ABC’s The Critics (1961-65) and wrote a weekly column, Browsing, for the newly established Murdoch paper The Australian, from the fourth issue, 15 March 1964, until 1991 when failing health stopped him.

He had created a record for column-writing longevity. During the 1970s and 80s he also contributed to Nation, The Sunday Mail and The Bulletin, and it was particularly these columns that earned him the gleefully appreciated epithet of “gadfly”.

He attacked anything and anybody that would make good copy. While admiring Don Dunstan, the premier rarely appeared in Harris’s column without “(glitter,glitter)” being added to his name. In a 1976 column on the Australian Way of Death, he claimed: “Australian death at best can be classed as a part of the waste disposal system.”

But he could be serious, even moving, as on the death of V. Gordon Childe, the founder of Australian archaeology, who at 65 threw himself over Govett’s Leap in the Blue Mountains in 1957, leaving a letter to be opened in 1980 saying the old should do away with themselves to make way for the young.

Selections from these columns were published in four books. In his introduction to the first, The Angry Eye (1973), Rupert Murdoch wrote: “I have sometimes had to defend myself against people who have found [Max] excessively critical of the Australian political, social, literary and artistic establishment. But I think every society needs a Max, to identify its successes as well as its failures, its forlorn hopes and its lost causes…But Max’s abrasive quality would lose its value if he did not write as wittily and well as he does.”

Though Harris underestimated the influence his journalism could have, he had no illusions about it, saying in the introduction to The Best of Max Harris (1986): “More than a thousand weekly pieces of fugitive writing. The writing doesn’t last. The writing could have been less prolix, and more finely honed had there been time for ruminations and revisions. But, as the years pass, tomorrow’s fish and chippery turns into social history.”

His output was prodigious, his writing habits individual. His daughter Samela, herself a noted journalist, remembers him “in the Bali Beach Baris Lounge hunched over writing paper. That was a beloved writing haunt.”

“He was a monstrous early riser,” Samela recalls. “He made crude, strong, black coffee in a saucepan with a wooden spoon and consumed it in a cloud of cigarette smoke as he wrote in the peace before dawn. In the UK years, writing from the farm, he had frequent association with Macmilllan execs such as Nicky Byam Shaw. But, as years rolled on, he liked to go to pubs and hospitable but impersonal places to write. Hence his latter years’ pleasure at Horst [Salomon]’s [restaurant] and then at his corner table in the Norwood Hotel. He wrote always by hand and in Biro. Tiny, left-handed writing, the lines with an upward slant.”

As well as his newspaper columns and journal articles, Harris published a novel, seven volumes of poetry, four non-fiction books, four collections of his writings and three books with Dutton together with the Angus and Robertson annual Australian Poetry (1967).

He led the fight to dismantle the Traditional Markets Agreement that left Australia under colonial publishing status and led to higher book prices. He attacked censorship. And he championed the beatification of Mary MacKillop – “A saint for all Australia”. His ashes were interred in park near Mary MacKillop College in the Adelaide suburb of Kensington.

In Who’s Who, Harris gave his sole recreation as “poppy-lopping”. He was an influential force in forming public opinion in Australia, most significantly in his championing of modernism in literature and the arts.

Alan Brissenden AM is an Honorary Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Adelaide, having retired in 1994 as Reader after 31 years’ teaching in the English Department, mainly in Shakespeare and Australian Literature. Since 1950 he has reviewed and written on dance and theatre, beginning with Honi Soit and The Sydney Morning Herald and currently for The Australian and The Adelaide Review.

A young Max Harris, circa 1938. Courtesy of HWT


Harris at Tarax Bar, Flinders Station, circa 1943. Photograph by Albert Tucker. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia


Harris in 1969. Photograph by K Byron. Courtesy of National Archives of Australia


Portrait of Max Harris, by Robert Hannaford




Further reading


The Angry Penguin: Selected Poems of Max Harris. Introduction, Alan Brissenden,
National Library of Australia, Canberra, 1996


The Ern Malley Affair, Michael Heyward, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia 1993


Max Harris: With reason, without rhyme, Betty Snowden, Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne, 2015


The Wakefield Companion to South Australian History, Maxwell Henley (Max) Harris. Peter Ward, Wakefield Press, Kent Town, 2001.