Henry Joseph Darger (April 12, 1892 April 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 Childrennote 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.
- 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 cut from their bindings and 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 (more about this film and its evocation of Darger as he really was in this essay). 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.
You may read selections from The Story of the Vivian Girls in the Realms of the Unreal, and the entire The Vivian Girls in Chicago, Henry's weather journal and The History of My Life the Illinois State Library website. (Takes forever to download, be patient.)
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.
His gravestone can be found in Illinois. The headstone reads "Henry Darger, Artist and Protector of Children."
Not to be confused with Henry Danger.
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.
- Author Phobia: The real reason, often ignored by more sensationalistic sources, for the scenes in his work that showed children being tortured. Darger adored children, and depicted the villains as committing these gruesome acts because hurting a child was the most evil thing he could possibly think of. Having spent much of his childhood in a horrific Bedlam House, he himself was no stranger to uncaring adults who abused children.
- Barbie Doll Anatomy: How the children in his works are drawn - most of the time.
- Bedlam House: He spent a good chunk of his adolescence in a facility for "feebleminded children" (he called it a "children's nuthouse") where children were raped, beaten and exploited into performing non-stop farm labor. Darger and some of his friends ran away several times. Although this did serve as inspiration for "Realms of the Unreal", he at one point denied his suffering, saying his life at the asylum had been "like in a sort of heaven" (perhaps compared to his later life).
- 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 or a replacement. 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.
- Dead Artists Are Better: Just barely averted. Shortly after he was moved into a nursing home, his landlords discovered the entirety of his massive library of work stacked up in his room. All of his neighbors visited him at the nursing home. One of them, David Berglund, who'd been cleaning out his rooms and was the first to find the art, complimented him on the incredible quality and breadth of his work. Darger was touched, but only replied "Too late now." But when his landlord Nathan Lerner, himself an artist and designer, again visited Henry and asked what he should do with it, Henry said "It's yours. Please keep it." And Nathan did.
- 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.
- Doorstopper: All of his writing is more than 4,000 pages long, and the vast majority of it was written longhand.
- FaceHeel Turn: Darger turned his Author Avatar to the side of Glandelinia as part of his revolt against God after the loss of his prized photograph, but would eventually return to the fold.
- Friend to All Children: Darger's heroes are protectors of children. Threats to children make up the bulk of his writing. He wanted to adopt a child, but couldn't; adoptions to single parents simply weren't done at that time, especially given his low income. His history of mental illness (at that time, having been in an insane asylum was in itself viewed as proof that you were insane) was probably also a factor.
- Mad Artist: Albeit one who would not be perceived as so horribly deviant nowadays. It's unclear how he would have turned out had he not been spent so much time in the mental institutions as a child, given that he always denied being abused there.
- 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.
- Misunderstood Loner with a Heart of Gold: A real life example of this trope. Despite the violent nature of the battles in The Realms of the Unreal, there is no evidence that Darger ever harmed or was even rude to a single living person - the vast majority of his life was spent either going to work, mass, or the amusement park with William Schloeder, and the rest of the time holed up in his room, quietly working on his masterpieces for decades.
- Multiple Endings: Interestingly, he wrote two different endings for Realms of the Unreal, one in which the Christian forces prevailed and one in which the Glandelinians did.
- No Budget: A rare example in visual art. Henry had to resort to tracing over photos of children and landscapes, which he would find along with art supplies while dumpster diving, for his illustrations since his hospital jobs couldn't afford him art lessons. (Careful examination of the papers found in his room show receipts from an art supply store, too.)
- Reality Subtext: Although he would always deny that he had suffered so greatly there, it's not hard to draw parallels between the evil Glandelinians violently enslaving children and the backbreaking child slavery and abuse that Darger himself suffered at the Asylum.
- Reclusive Artist: Possibly the quintessential example. Aside from visiting the amusement parks with his Only Friend William Schloeder, working, and going to mass. Drawing and writing was apparently Darger's sole occupation in life.
- Scenery Porn: Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of his portraits are incredibly vivid and colorful idyllic nature scenes - not the Gorn.
- Self-Abuse: This is cited as the reason he was institutionalized. Of course, given the era, it probably wasn't as bad as the authorities thought.
- Wouldn't Hurt a Child: Darger was very much this - despite what some people would have you think - and thus depicted scenes of the Glandelinians torturing and murdering children because hurting a child was the most evil thing he could possibly think of. Darger spent a large portion of his childhood as a virtual slave at a horrible Bedlam House, so he knew damn well what it felt like for a child to be abused by uncaring adults.
- Write Who You Know: Darger wrote himself, his Only Friend William Schloeder, and a childhood bully named John Manley into The Realms of the Unreal (as protagonists and an antagonist, unsurprisingly.)