James McAuley was a Lakemba boy who lived through interesting times and made his mark upon them in Australia. Given the time since his death in 1976 a person would need to be well into middle age to have any living memory of the man, and I was fortunate to get a glimpse because he spent his last 16 years in Hobart as Reader in Poetry at the University of Tasmania.
I played hookey from Ag Science and attended two of his lectures with a friend who was reading English. He was a captivating lecturer, an actor and a performer. He brought passion and power into the classroom, one of the lectures on King Lear was especially dramatic and insightful. I expected that his exhilarating experience would stimulate interesting conversation over coffee after the lecture but our group was dedicated to discussion of the student gossip and social events of the forthcoming weekend.
This is a trial run for an Introduction to a collection of McAuley’s essays to be published by Quadrant Books. What do people under the age of 60 and 30 need to be told about McAuley? People are invited to help me to target the Introduction for best effect.
He went from Homebush Public School to Fort Street Boys High, a notorious incubator of young talent, then to Sydney Uni immediately before the war. He flirted with communism and anarchism under the influence of John Anderson, distinguished himself playing jazz piano at parties and appeared to be the shining star of his generation but missed out on a travelling scholarship to Britain.
During the war he taught in Newcastle and then languished in the mysterious Directorate of Research run by the legendary (and mysterious) Alf Conlon. With time on his hands he teamed up with another poet, Harold Stewart to write some imitation avant garde poetry under the name “Ern Malley” which created a sensation when it was taken seriously at first by Max Harris and others.
In 1943 he started has association with New Guinea and lectured for many years in courses to prepare field officers and administrators for service in New Guinea. During that time he converted to Catholicism and in the 1950s he engaged on the side of the Groupers and Splitters when the ALP fragmented to produce the catholic/conservative DLP (keeping the Menzies administration in office through the 1950s and beyond).
In 1955 he became the founding editor of Quadrant, then quarterly, and remained a guiding editorial presence for many years, even when the moved from Sydney to Tasmania in 1960. His poetry developed in interesting directions and he maintained his critique of aspects of modernity with two collections of essays.