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James McAuley (1917 – 1976)

James McAuley, photographer unknown James McAuley, photographer unknown

James McAuley was born in Lakemba, in the western suburbs of Sydney, in 1917, the son of grazier and real estate speculator, Patrick McAuley, and his wife Mary (née Judge). He spent most of his childhood at Homebush, where the family moved after his father’s retirement, and attended Homebush Public School. Displaying early literary and musical talents, McAuley was sent to the selective public school Fort Street Boys High School, where he became school captain and won prizes for his writing; a number of his earliest poems appeared in the school magazine, The Fortian . In 1935 he matriculated to the University of Sydney, where he studied English and philosophy. At university he continued to hone his poetic craft, contributing poems to the student magazine Hermes , where he also became one of the editors. After graduating with a B.A. (Hons) in 1938, he went on to complete an M.A., writing a thesis on the influence of symbolism in English, French and German literature. From the late 1930s he supported himself in various tutoring and teaching positions, and in 1942 took up a teacher’s scholarship, completed a Diploma of Education and was appointed to Newcastle Boys Junior High School. In June 1942 he married a fellow teacher, Norma Elizabeth Abernethy.

In January 1943, McAuley was called up for national service in the Militia, and quickly transferred to the Australian Imperial Force. In January 1944 he was commissioned in the Melbourne-based Army Directorate of Civil Affairs, where he renewed his association with another Fort Street graduate, Harold Stewart. While working at the Army Directorate in 1944, McAuley and Stewart concocted the ‘Ern Malley’ hoax, intending to expose what they saw as a lack of meaning in modernist literature and art. The target of the hoax was Max Harris, the Adelaide-based editor of Angry Penguins magazine and champion of literary modernism. When Harris took the bait and published the poems of ‘Ern Malley,’ Stewart and McAuley were (eventually) revealed as the actual authors, and admitted having concocted a fictitious identity for ‘Ern’ and using partly random composition methods to produce the poems. While the hoax did cause significant embarrassment to Harris—and has been seen by some as inhibiting the development of literary modernism in Australia—the poems of ‘Ern Malley’ have remained in print and continue to be a subject of significant critical debate: a consequence Stewart and McAuley surely did not intend. In 1946, McAuley published his first collection of poetry (in his own name), Under Aldebaran .

After the war, McAuley became a lecturer at the Australian School of Pacific Administration, first in Canberra then Sydney, a position he retained until 1959. While at the School he became deeply interested in the then Australian administered Territory of Papua and New Guinea, and was profoundly influenced by the Roman Catholic missionary archbishop Alain Marie Guynot de Boismenu (1870–1953). In 1952, McAuley converted to Catholicism, which would henceforth have a defining influence on his intellectual life. Immersing himself in Cold War politics, he became associated with the radical Catholic ideologue B.A. Santamaria, and was instrumental in the anti-Communist agitation that split the Labor movement and resulted in formation of the Democratic Labor Party in the mid-1950s. In 1955, he joined the Australian branch of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a conservative, anti-Communist organisation, funded in part by the CIA, and became editor of its journal, Quadrant . McAuley’s reputation as a poet was furthered with the publication of his second collection, A Vision of Ceremony , in 1956, and his credentials as a conservative public intellectual were bolstered by the publication of a collection of critical essays, The End of Modernity: Essays on Literature, Art and Culture (1959).

In 1960 McAuley and his family moved to Hobart, where he took up a position at the University of Tasmania, and the following year he was appointed to the chair of English at the University. Despite his academic duties he continued to write and publish poetry, including his epic poem Captain Quiros (1964), and the collection Surprises of the Sun (1969), which included a poem sequence ‘On the Western Line,’ based on McAuley’s childhood experiences in the Western suburbs of Sydney. During the 1960s he also published a number of critical works, including a monograph on the work of Christopher Brennan (1963), a general introduction to poetics, A Primer of English Versification (1966), and a book-length study of Australian poetry entitled The Personal Element in Australian Poetry (1970). He did not abandon his interest in politics, publishing and organising in support of Australian involvement in the Vietnam War.

In 1970, McAuley was diagnosed with bowel cancer. After recovering from the illness, he devoted increased time and energy to ensuring his literary legacy. His Collected Poems appeared in 1971, and was a joint winner of the Grace Leven Prize in that year. In 1975, he published a second collection of his essays, The Grammar of the Real: Selected Prose, 1959–1974 , and a collection of his critical work on Australian poetry, A Map of Australian Verse: The Twentieth Century . Two collections of his later poetry appeared in 1976: Time Given: Poems 1970–1976 , and Music Late at Night: Poems 1970–1973 . Early in 1976, McAuley was diagnosed with liver cancer; he died on 15 October that year, in Hobart. His posthumous publications included the poetry collection, ‘A World of its Own’ (1977), a collection of his writing edited by his long-time friend Leonie Kramer ( James McAuley: Poetry, Essays and Personal Commentary , UQP, 1988), and a revised volume of his Collected Poems (1994).

A significant and often controversial figure in the Australian post-War literary landscape, McAuley’s achievement as a poet has in recent years often been overshadowed by debates over his role as a right-wing intellectual. While unquestionably seen as a major Australian poet in his own time, it is a lasting irony that critical interest in McAuley’s work since his death has been largely eclipsed by the interest in his short-lived creation ‘Ern Malley.’

Poems on this website by arrangement with the Licensor, The James McAuley Estate, c/- Curtis Brown (Aust) Pty Ltd.

Poetry Collections
  • [with Harold Stewart, as ‘Ern Malley’], The Darkening Ecliptic Melbourne Reed and Harris 1944
  • Under Aldebaran Melbourne Melbourne University Press 1946
  • A Vision of Ceremony: poems Sydney Angus and Robertson 1956
  • James McAuley Sydney Angus and Robertson 1963
  • Captain Quiros: a poem Sydney Angus and Robertson 1964
  • Surprises of the Sun Sydney Angus and Robertson 1969
  • Collected Poems 1936–1970 Sydney Angus and Robertson 1971
  • Time Given: poems 1970–1976 Canberra Brindabella Press 1976
  • Music Late at Night: poems 1970–1973 Sydney Angus and Robertson 1976
  • ‘A World of Its Own’ Canberra Australian National University Press 1977
  • Collected Poems Pymble, NSW Angus and Robertson 1994
Suggested Further Reading
  • Michael Ackland, Damaged Men: The Precarious Lives of James McAuley and Harold Stewart (St Leonards, NSW: Allen and Unwin, 2001).
  • Michael Ackland, ‘James McAuley (1917–1976),’ in Selina Samuels, ed., Australian Writers 1915–1950 (Detroit, USA: Gale Research, 2002), pp. 220–29.
  • R.F. Brissenden, ‘The Wounded Hero: James McAuley’s Collected Poems, 1936–1970,’ Southerly 32.4 (1972).
  • Gary Catalano, ‘The Language of Sight: The Late Poems of James McAuley,’ Imago: New Writing 8.1 (1996), pp. 135–44.
  • Peter Coleman, The Heart of James McAuley: Life and Work of the Australian Poet (Sydney: Wildcat Press, 1980; rev. ed., Melbourne: Connor Court, 2006).
  • John Hawke, ‘Post-Symbolism: James McAuley and A.D. Hope,’ Long Paddock no.3 (2008). http://www.brandl.com.au/southerly/southerly%20longpaddock/3-68/johnhawke.html
  • A.D. Hope, ‘The Epic Theme: James McAuley’s Captain Quiros,’ in Native Companions: Essays and Comments on Australian Literature, 1936–1966 (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1974), pp. 175–85.
  • Leonie Kramer, ed., James McAuley: Poetry, Essays and Personal Commentary (St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland, 1988).
  • Geoffrey Lehmann, ‘James McAuley: Literary Criticism in the Form of a Memoir,’ Quadrant 46.12 (2002), pp. 54–58.
  • James McAuley, ‘The Rhetoric of Australian Poetry,’ Southerly 36.1 (1976), pp. 3–23.
  • James McAuley, The Grammar of the Real: selected prose 1959–1974 (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1975).
  • Lyn McCredden, ‘James McAuley’s Captain Quiros,’ Australian Literary Studies 13.1 (1987), pp. 54–64.
  • Peter Pierce, ‘McAuley, James Phillip (1917–1976),’ Australian Dictionary of Biography Online, 2000, http://adbonline.anu.edu.au/biogs/A150192b.htm
  • Noel Rowe, ‘James McAuley: The Possibility of Despair,’ Southerly 60.2 (2000), pp. 26–38.