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Maxwell Henley Harris AO (13 April 1921 – 13 January 1995) was an Australian poet, critic, columnist, commentator, publisher, and bookseller.
Harris was born in Adelaide, South Australia, and raised in the city of Mount Gambier, where his father was based as a travelling salesman. His early poetry was published in the children's pages of The Sunday Mail. He continued to write poetry through his secondary schooling after winning a scholarship to St Peter's College, Adelaide. By the time he began attending the University of Adelaide, he was already recognised as a poet and intellectual. In 1941, he ed two ions of the student newspaper On Dit.
Harris's passion for poetry and modernism were driving forces behind the creation in 1940 of a literary journal called Angry Penguins. His co-founders were D.B. "Sam" Kerr, Paul G. Pfeiffer and Geoffrey Dutton. The first issue attracted the interest of Melbourne lawyer and arts patron John Reed, who offered to collaborate on publishing further issues. Harris, already trying to establish a South Australian branch of the Contemporary Art Society, was lured to the Reeds' art enclave at Heide. By the second issue of Angry Penguins, Harris had incorporated visual art into the journal. Sidney Nolan later joined the orial team. Other artists associated with Angry Penguins include Albert Tucker, Joy Hester, James Gleeson, Arthur Boyd and John Perceval.
Traditionalist poets were outraged by the success of Angry Penguins with its promotion of surrealism and publication of progressive writers such as Dylan Thomas, Gabriel García Márquez, James Dickey and the American poet Harry Roskolenko.
The poet and critic A. D. Hope was among those virulently opposed to Harris and the modernists. Hope inspired two young poets serving in the army, Harold Stewart and James McAuley, to "get Maxy". Under the name of "Ern Malley", the pair crafted a series of poems in the modernist style and submitted them to Harris at Angry Penguins. Harris thought the poems brilliant and published them with some fanfare in Angry Penguins.
The poems were controversial but well received. However, police in South Australia interpreted some lines in the poetry as lewd (one poem used the word "incestuous") and Harris was charged with obscenity.
Reed and Harris, who were by this time also publishing books, employed a detective to discover more about the mystery poet. Word emerged that Ern Malley was a hoax. The obscenity trial attracted international press attention. Harris was found guilty and fined five pounds despite noted literary critics testifying for the defence.
Harris ran the Mary Martin Bookshop in Adelaide with his university friend Mary Maydwell Martin. They published a monthly newsletter with literary criticism, comment and book reviews. After Mary Martin moved to India, Harris expanded the book chain across Australia and Hong Kong. The chain pioneered the remaindered book industry in Australia by offering quality titles at reasonable prices. Harris fought the stranglehold which overseas publishers had on the Australian book market, taking on major publishing houses to ensure accessibly-priced books for Australian readers. The Mary Martin chain was sold to Macmillans in the late 1970s.
Harris founded and co-ed the Australian Book Review and another literary journal, Australian Letters, which continued the practice of commissioning artists to illustrate poetry. He was also a founder of Sun Books. Harris published his poetry privately, although it was often included in classic Australian anthologies.
He became a long-serving and controversial columnist for The Australian, with many of his "Browsing" columns later published in book form. It was in this context that he was dubbed "Australia's Cultural Catalyst".[by whom?] He also wrote columns for Adelaide newspapers. Harris campaigned against censorship, and was an early voice in the Australian republican movement.
Although he was not a Catholic, Harris championed the then little-known nun and teacher, Mary MacKillop, founder of the Josephite Order, calling her "a saint for all Australians". He became a prominent lay spokesman for her canonisation. Josephite nuns visited Harris in later life when he was ill. His ashes lie in a park between the Mary MacKillop College and the Josephite Convent in Adelaide.
Harris was made an Officer of the Order of Australia. The Alumni Association of Adelaide University awarded him the title of "Father of Modernism in the Australian Arts".
Max Harris was the father of journalist and columnist Samela Harris.
O those dawn-waders, cold-sea-gazers, The long-shanked ibises that on the Nile Told one hushed peasant of rebirth Move in a calm immortal frieze On the mausoleum of my incestuous And self-fructifying death.