The Two Worlds of Henry Darger

One day in the year 1912 an unknown thief entered St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chicago and broke into a locker holding the possessions of a twenty-year-old janitor named Henry Darger. A photo of five year old Elsie Paroubek, which Darger had torn from a newspaper, was amongst the items taken:

CHICAGO. May, 11.—A reward of $1,000 has been offered, including $200 by Gov. Deneen, for the arrest and conviction of the murderer of Elsie Paroubek, whose body was found in the drainage canal Sunday.—NY Times, May 12, 1911. Elsie’s case remains unsolved.

The theft of the photo threw the janitor into a panic. Somehow, the loss of the picture of this poor little girl was more than Darger, who had petitioned the Catholic authorities to adopt a child and been refused, could take.

To begin to understand why the loss of a newspaper photo could affect this man so deeply, we must go back to his childhood. At the age of four, Henry Darger’s mother died giving birth to a girl. Henry never met his little sister, who was put up for adoption. At eight Henry’s ill father relinquished stewardship of his precocious book-loving son to The Mission of Our Lady of Mercy Boys’ Home. While there he was sent to one of Chicago’s public schools. The other children and more importantly the teacher found young Henry’s behavior disruptive. A doctor was called in and the child was diagnosed as suitable for the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln. Such children, sometimes referred to as “idiots”, were not deemed capable of academic accomplishments and were therefore not given any opportunity to achieve them. Instead, they were used as laborers. One attempt to escape resulted in Henry’s being lassoed by a horseman and forced to run back to the home on the end of a rope. Finally, at sixteen, Darger managed to escape, hopped a train to Decatur and walked to Chicago. There he began his life as a laborer in various Catholic institutions while residing in an assortment of small rooms, where, every night after work, he picked up a pencil and entered another world. He wrote,

Us children in those days were looked upon as beneath the dignity of grownups, whereas to my opinion all grownups, and especially all types of strangers, were less than the dust beneath my feet.*

Henry Darger became obsessed with the innocence of children and the evil done them by the adult world. “Babies,” he wrote, “were more to me than anything, more than the world.” Moreover, he seems never to have deemed himself a member of the adult world. Neighbors saw in him a childlike innocence, a man who lived a very simple life, talked to no one and just wanted to be left alone. He did what he had to do to survive, and that was it.

One might, with a little effort, write a passing account of the aesthetic qualities of Darger’s visual art, even while admitting the special difficulty of such an attempt due to the relationship of that work to his writing. Very few people in the world are in a position to assess the proper contours of that body of writing; it’s just too enormous. It seems unlikely that his 15,000 page magnum opus, to which the much celebrated Vivian Girl paintings serve as visual extensions, will ever be published in anything nearing its totality, nor his 5,000 page autobiography, and certainly not his ten year weather journal. Even the snippets that are available, in John MacGregor’s biography and in Michael Bonesteel’s Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings, are difficult for today’s reader to access, since they are out of print and expensive to purchase. But even admitting such difficulties, a mere aesthetic approach to the art of Henry Darger will be unsatisfactory, simply because the most cursory glance at his work and life cannot ignore the ruckus of questions that surround the man who neighbors saw as both odd and completely ordinary. It is hardly possible to look at Darger’s art with an eye uncolored by one’s personal view of the world.

There is, to begin with, the preponderance of naked little girls with penises. Then there are a number of brutal depictions of children being tortured, which illustrate those portions of the opus which deal with the enslavement, murder and overall oppression of children. These items alone strike the viewer as weird, signaling a realm out of the ordinary, even for contemporary art. When the American Folk Art Museum in New York unveiled a comprehensive exhibit of the work in 1997, Director Gerard C. Wertkin admitted that some viewers were “utterly repulsed.”** In fact, Darger’s only biographer to date, prone to psychoanalysis, dares suggest that the eccentric loner may have murdered little Elsie.

The image of the very real Elsie Paroubek is the lightning rod between the real world of Chicago, scrub buckets and Catholic Mass and the Unreal World of Henry Darger’s room. The writer incorporated her tragic image into the narrative fabric of his magnum opus, making the real-world loss of her photo hinge directly upon the evil done to the Vivian Girls. He wrote himself into the narrative as well. In this and many other ways, Darger showed himself to be a lucid maker in full control of his material.

This does not mean that he was a remarkable draftsman. He was not, and he knew it. His genius was to find techniques that enabled him to make artworks so coveted by today’s collectors. He began by amassing a cache of images wherever he could find them: from newspapers, advertisements, coloring books or from the garbage can. He then assembled the images into compositions through collage or by tracing their outlines and coloring them in. Some of these compositions, done on pieces of butcher’s paper taped together, measure over eight feet long. Sometimes, to get the right size image, he would utilize a photographic innovation at the corner drugstore. Consider this: he would spend three dollars of his twenty-five dollar a week salary on a photo enlargement of an image. This was clearly someone who knew what he wanted and was determined to get it.

Darger divided the two worlds of his life in full lucidity. Many details support this view. No one so much as suspected Darger’s private life as an artist. Other than William Shloder, the only friend he is known to have had, no one ever suspected that Darger took any special notice of children, not even the children who lived in his building. Mary O’Donnell was a cute little girl when Darger came to live in the building her parents owned. She has said that Henry paid no attention to her and her playmates, adding, “Leave me alone, he would say, leave me alone.”* Kiyoko Lerner, Darger’s landlord and inheritor of his estate, said that Darger would not even answer direct questions, and would only talk about the weather. The weather is always a safe topic of conversation, and it seemed that Henry did not feel comfortable talking about anything else, preferring to save conversation for when he was home, all alone. Yet here too he was determined to offer proof of the arrogant foolishness of the adult world. His detailed weather journal kept careful track of the discrepancies between the actual weather as he experienced it and the weather as forecasted by the local meteorologist. It seems clear that Darger divided his two worlds in complete awareness.

The Unreal Vivian Girls were too beautiful for the real world. Darger wrote, “Their beauty could not never be painted had they been seen for real.” So beautiful and so pure were the Vivian Girls that for General Darger to view them,

He must do the same thing as when preparing for Holy Communion—he must be in a State of Grace, never use any profane language, like once in a while he did, and must be in better control of his hasty temper, which generally he had. He did not feel himself worthy enough to approach these fair creatures, and determined to become more clean of heart. And that night while he laid in bed he dreamed that he went to Abbiennia, saw the girls beg him most pleadingly to end their unjust sufferings.—Henry Darger, from The Story of the Vivian Girls, in what is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion

A devout Catholic, Darger built a shrine to the lost photograph and petitioned God fervently for its return. God did not intervene, and in a rage Darger tore the altar down and predicted ruin for the Girls. “God is too hard on me,” he wrote. “I will not bear it any longer.” He caused General Darger to turn traitor and join the forces of the heathen Glandelinian Army. And then, for a time, he stopped writing. In one of the most poignant scenes of the very beautiful film by Jessica Yu, the narration states: “The loss deepens Henry’s realization that all the power he wields in his fantasy world cannot bring him what he yearns for in the real one.”*

Images like this one strike me as being akin to devotional objects

But the Catholic Church was the only home Henry Darger ever knew, and he did not turn his back on God for long, even though he often thought that his prayers were ignored. He resumed his regular attendance to Mass, and worked his repentance into the grand narrative of his opus. Near the end of his life he ended the novel with victory for the Girls. But on the next page he wrote another ending. Here the heathens are victorious and evil prevails. The double ending is perhaps one of the most disturbing details of Henry Darger’s work. And yet I admire its courage, for it is an accurate reflection of duplicitous life as this suffering “sorry saint” experienced it.

Henry Darger is the quintessential artist. And this in spite of what Michel Thévoz advises us to remember: “we have rummaged around in the bedroom of a dead man, a man who seems to have done everything he could to protect himself from our intrusion.”** Darger made art for the purest of reasons: out of a need to transform his sadness and pain into something beautiful and dignified. And so, while he is, in a sense, being loved to death, his work locked away in the name of protecting a world treasure, others, alone in rooms suffering travails that only they can detail, look to him as to a beacon of artistic truth. Let the Institutions protect their treasure. Let the scholars and babblers psychoanalyze him. Henry Darger is for the orphan geniuses among us.

This article is dedicated, with admiration, respect and love, to Chris Al-Aswad

*In the Realms of the Unreal, a film by Jessica Yu. All quotations of Henry Darger are from this film.
**Darger: the Henry Darger collection at the American Folk Art Museum / Brooke Davis Anderson; essay by Michel Thévoz

Artwork by Henry Darger:

American Folk Art Museum

Carl Hammer Gallery

Andrew Edlin Gallery

Mark Kerstetter writes poetry, fiction and essays on art and literature. He loves to draw and make art out of wood salvaged from demolition sites, and samples it all on The Bricoleur.