During the Sydney Olympic Art Festival, I saw a draft version of a musical based on 1944’s Ern Malley hoax. There was a particularly good song showing the conservative poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, assembling the fake poems from a mashed up a range of sources – misquoted dead poets, Army manuals and so on.
It’s a fascinating story. But the musical was (as far as I can tell) never completed. The difficulty was in the point of the whole story. Who should we ridicule? Max Harris, because he was taken in by the hoax? McAuley and Stewart, because they produced their best and most interesting work as a prank?
The musical came to mind while I was listening to Assoc Prof David Brooks’ talk, ‘Literary hoaxes: Throwing out the babies with the bathwater’ at the Five Bells conference. He was arguing that we are too quick to dismiss hoaxes as being not worthy of study, when in fact they can be both influential and revealing.
I love a good hoax: I’d recommend ‘Banvard’s Folly’ (http://www.amazon.com/Banvards-Folly-Thirteen-People-Change/dp/0312300336) to anyone who shares my interest. But David’s talk asked me to look at literary hoaxes in a new light. Ern Malley and other hoaxes – Helen Demidenko, B. Wongar and Colin Johnson were mentioned – are very revealing about our national character. We seem to like our fiction in a safe creative ‘cage’ – that’s David’s word, not mine.Is the reason we are so dismissive or Demidenko, for example, a response to the way the ‘The Hand that Signed the Paper’ hoax revealed our naivete about multiculturalism?
Ern Malley was influential in the world of modern poetry despite his lack of existence! His influence continues today – see the official website http://www.ernmalley.com/index.html for details.
Perhaps what was missing from the musical was this sense that the hoaxes provide insights that ‘authentic’ literature doesn’t?