Creator / Henry Darger

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Henry Darger, Artist and Protector of Children

They have been my companions. They are part of myself, those pictures, long before I knew them I had been such a lonely little boy.

Do you believe it, unlike most children I hated to see the day come where I would be grown up. I never wanted to. I wished to be young always. I am grown up now and an old, lame man, darn it.

Henry Joseph Darger (April 12, 1892ľApril 13, 1973) was an outsider artist and author from Chicago. After losing his parents at an early age, he spent the majority of his childhood in a series of abusive orphanages and insane asylums, and responded by creating an internal fantasy world. At sixteen, he escaped the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln, Illinois, and walked 160 miles back to Chicago, finding work there as a janitor in a succession of Catholic hospitals. Apart from a short stint in the US Army during World War I, he lived quietly as a janitor and dishwasher all his life, hardly ever speaking in public and emerging from his apartment only to go to work and Mass. Eventually, he died in a nursing home in 1973. When cleaning out his apartment, his landlords found an immense treasure trove of artwork and stories that Darger had been working on for more than sixty years.

These included:
  • The 15,145 page novel The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, chronicling a fictional war between the Christian nation of Angelinia and the militantly atheist nation of Glandelinia.
  • Its 10,000 page handwritten sequel Crazy House: Further Adventures in Chicago, featuring the Vivian Girls and their "secret brother" Penrod exorcising the ghosts from an evil haunted house.
  • The History of My Life, Darger's 4,878 page autobiography, which spends only 206 pages on his life before veering off into a story about a sentient tornado named "Sweetie Pie".
  • A ten year long daily weather journal.
  • Finally, a series of 300 paintings, some more than thirty feet long and double-sided, illustrating In the Realms of the Unreal and infamous for featuring numerous drawings of naked little girls with penises being tortured, strangled, and hacked to pieces by Glandelinian soldiers.

The majority of his pictures are heroic portraits, ordinary action-adventure scenes, or colorful, flower-filled panoramas. However, the 1% of his output that covered the Glandelinian massacres are the ones that get the most attention. Because these horrific scenes were originally displayed without recourse to the contextual narrative, many people didn't know what to make of Darger and some (including a famous psychiatrist) mistook him for a 1930s version of Jeffrey Dahmer. There is no evidence that Darger ever harmed a living soul.

A documentary about his life was released in 2004. A second film, Revolutions of the Night, released in 2012, gives more detail about his background. Most of his work is on exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum in New York. Chicago's INTUIT Gallery is celebrating his 125th birthday with special presentations all through 2017. April 12 has been declared Henry Darger Day in Chicago and Mayor Rahm Emanuel even signed a proclamation in his honor.

Some reviewers including Elizabeth Hand have noted similarities between Darger and J.R.R. Tolkien, right down to their devout Catholicism, losing their mothers in childhood, and being born and dying in the same years — besides both writing self-illustrated fantasy epics in which people of small stature but great courage save the universe from evil.


Tropes appearing in his works:

  • Author Appeal:
    • Children and Christianity factor heavily into his writing about the Vivian girls. Darger was obsessed with children and was an extremely devout Catholic.
    • Weather. Darger paid close attention to weather patterns and kept a painstaking weather log for ten years. His "Sweetie Pie" tornado character obviously springs from this interest.
  • Author Avatar: Darger put himself into the stories of the Vivian girls as a main character.
  • Creator Breakdown: One of Darger's most prized newspaper clippings that he used as a template for his drawings was a photograph of a murdered girl named Elsie Paroubek, taken from the Chicago Daily News. When he lost the photo, he built a shrine to Paroubek in his apartment — he had several shrines for missing and exploited children over the years — and petitioned God for the photo's safe return. The story of the missing picture was worked right into the narrative, where Elsie was Annie Aronburg, a heroic leader in the child slave rebellion. When the photo didn't turn up, and when he was unable to find it in newspaper archives, Darger turned the war in In the Realms of the Unreal against the Christian child rebellion and ratcheted up the Gorn inflicted on his child protagonists. After he failed to adopt a child through a Catholic orphanage, Darger interpreted this as God punishing him for making the child characters miserable and later changed the narrative again. Realms ended up having two alternate endings, one where the Christian forces are triumphant and another where they are defeated.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Children, particularly in his stories about the Vivian Girls, are often punished, enslaved, tortured and murdered For the Evulz by Glandelinian authorities. A Civil War expert, Darger may have based some of this on slave narratives and on Uncle Tom's Cabin which he referenced directly many times.
  • Friend to All Children: Darger's heroes are protectors of children. Threats to children make up the bulk of his writing.
  • Malignant Plot Tumor: His autobiography is only 4 percent about himself and 96 percent about a living tornado.
  • Meaningful Name: Most of Darger's heroes and villains can be easily distinguished by their names.
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