The first Angry Penguins appeared out of the University of Adelaide in 1940. Editor Max Harris was 19, a student of Economics and English - but more significantly, he already was a published and recognised poet and he had been a member of the Jindyworobak Club, an earlier movement devoted to emancipating an Australian identity in literature.
His Angry Penguins co-editor was D.B. "Sam" Kerr, a fellow student and accomplished modernist poet who was killed in action in New Guinea in 1942. Their quest was a boldly rebellious one, to liberate Australian literature and art, seeking, as Harris put it, "a mythic sense of a geographical and cultural identity". - no less than a change in the Australian national self-perception.
The first issue of Angry Penguins, funded by Harris's mother, was a literary anthology devoted to modernist writings. Its name was the inspiration of the journal's patron, Charles Jury. It 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. Famously, he commented that there was "a sense of genius about the place''.
Also among the Angry Penguins founders were the scholar Paul G. Pfeiffer and the poet Geoffrey Dutton. Like Kerr, Pfeiffer did not return from the war.
Harris's passions, however, did not stop at the written word. He was a clarion advocate of surrealism and he was pivotally involved in the establishment of the South Australian Contemporary Arts Society.
After the first issue of the Angry Penguins, the Melbourne lawyer John Reed visited Adelaide to seek out the vital young intellectual who was making such waves. Reed was soon to abandon law in favor of running Victoria's Contemporary Art Society. It was through Reed, of course, that Harris made his connection with the artist Sidney Nolan. The link stimulated Harris to marry the two modernist movements, art and literature, and the second issue of Angry Penguins featured reproductions of a surrealist painting by James Gleeson and a Klee-like work by Sidney Nolan along with writings poetic, philosophical and ideological. Artist and critic Ivor Francis and jazzman/artist/poet Dave Dallwitz were among the contributors.
Thus did Angry Penguins forge onwards to express the aesthetic and literary impetus of the period - and, to a certain controversial extent, to elicit the change it sought.
The Conservatives of that period were less subtle than the ones which were to follow. They were Harris's fellow students at the University of Adelaide. In 1941 with the early part of WWII raging in North Africa, the students were fired with patriotism and were enraged by the anarchistic sentiments they encountered in the first issue of Angry Penguins.
A campus meeting was called in which Harris and Angry Penguins were condemned and the students called for punishment - by throwing Harris and three other anarchist students into the nearby River Torrens. Harris leapt onto a table and volunteered to throw himself into the River if the students would take up a collection for the war effort and the red Cross.
The students chose the dunking. The deed was done by engineering and medical students - but not before the media had been summoned to sensationalise the event. Despite the publicity and opprobrium, Harris surged forth with confident commitment to his cause.
In 1943, with his degree completed, Harris accepted Reed's invitation to move to Melbourne and Angry Penguins was edited conjointly with John Reed - with added injections of energy from Sidney Nolan and Albert Tucker.
With sublime prescience, Angry Penguins published the modernist writers from overseas - Dylan Thomas, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, James Dickey... American poet Harry Roskolenko wrote for Angry Penguins and was guest editor for one issue.
More conventional literature was represented by the likes of Alan Marshall, Peter Cowan, Dal Stevens and women such as Elizabeth Galloway and Elizabeth Lambert. Artist and art critic Ivor Francis was a contributor while artists Nolan, Gleeson, Vassilieff, Perceval and Boyd were reproduced. The conservative literary world lived in simmering resentment of the political and aesthetic passions emerging in Angry Penguins, not to mention the exuberant intellectual instigations of young Max Harris, the "enfant terrible".
A.D. Hope had the first word in his vitriolic review of Harris's Vegetative Eye - and it is strongly suspected that he had a second word when it came to the Ern Malley Affair. "Get Maxy" was his reported catchcry, and these words are believed to have been uttered to the hoaxers, McAuley and Stewart in late 1943.
These two mediocre traditionalist poets, both in the army and stuck in the Victoria Barracks with lots of time on their hands, decided they would be the ones to teach Harris a lesson.
Lieutenant James McAuley and Corporal Harold Stewart thought it would be hilarious if they could invent a modernist poet, concoct some poetry and debunk the whole business of modernist poetry. So, in a series of mischievous creative fugues, they gleaned lines from here and there, even from the American Armed Forces guide to mosquito infestation, and put it together in what they perceived to be a brilliant imitation of the new poetic genre. They dubbed the poet Ern Malley and to avoid the publishers seeking contact with him, they said that, like Keats, he had died young. They then invented his sister, Ethel, who “discovered” the poetry and decided to send it to Harris to judge it for literary merit.
Harris loved it. So did John Reed, Sidney Nolan et al. With immense pride and pleasure, Harris published Ern Malley in the 1944 autumn issue of Angry Penguins.
Reed & Harris subsequently published the poems in book form under the title of The Darkening Ecliptic. They were enthusiastically received.
After the prank was revealed, the hoaxers said their work had no literary merit - and that was the point. Harris, however, stuck to his guns. Whether they liked it or not, he asserted, McAuley and Stewart had written their best poetry, their only poetry of real genius. The assumed persona of Ern Malley had liberated them.
The subsequent issue of Angry Penguins largely was devoted to analyses of the poems - with contributions from Sir Herbert Read, Geoffrey Dutton, Reg Ellery, A.R. Chisholm, Brian Elliot, Adrian Lawlor, Albert Tucker and many more.
Angry Penguins was a large, complex magazine and it appeared irregularly. (In total there were only nine issues.) Because of this, Harris decided to produce an smaller interim publication called Angry Penguins Broadsheet. This filled in gaps with news and reviews on art and literature, and, as Harris put it "to engage in cultural controversy or polemics; to cartoon, pillory, debunk, burlesque".
Angry Penguins continued for two more years after the Ern Malley Affair. During this time Harris returned to Adelaide. Thereafter, Ern Malley's Journal was born and ran for several issues. Harris, by then running a book business with his old university friend and Angry Penguins business manager, Mary Martin, began producing a provocative book-oriented topical newsletter called Mary's Own Paper - and thereafter, he gave birth to the Australian Book Review and the literary magazine Australian Letters.