God, the Janitor, and the Psychic Hermaphrodites
Henry Darger, Throw-Away Boy: The Tragic Life of an Outsider Artist
by Jim Elledge
In 1972, Henry Darger, a retired janitor, moved from his apartment of forty years at 851 W. Webster Avenue in Chicago to St. Augustine’s Home for the Aged to live out the final year of his life. His landlord, Nathan Lerner, enlisted another resident, David Berglund, to empty the apartment. Berglund found dozens of empty Pepto-Bismol bottles, scores of broken eyeglasses, decrepit and mismatched shoes, boxes full of twine, stacks of telephone directories, and newspapers and magazines that had turned green with mold and mildew. He also found thirty thousand pages of unpublished, handwritten manuscripts and more than three hundred astonishing works of watercolor and collage, up to twelve feet in length, of little girls, many naked, some bearing ram horns, some with tiny penises, being butchered by soldiers, in idyllic repose, or being guarded by dragon-like creatures with elaborately patterned, enormous wings. Stunned that his hermetic neighbor had secretly created such an enormous body of work, he visited Darger and told him of the discovery. “Throw it all away,” Darger said.
Lerner didn’t, and in the years after Darger’s death, he was instrumental in getting Darger’s paintings exhibited and helping to establish him as a king of Outsider Art, a broad, variable category that can encompass any untrained artists whose creations are free from the influence of art history, the mainstream art world, or the marketplace. Its most famous practitioners are socially marginalized, eccentric visionaries, many of whom have suffered from mental illness, and have produced work that is often so excessive in scope, obsessive in detail, and repetitive in form that collectors are frequently stereotyped as robber barons less concerned with the results as art than as the barometer of a naïve or diseased mind.
And, certainly, anyone using that criteria to view Darger’s vistas of graphic warfare between soldiers and pre-pubescent girls might come to what Jim Elledge, author of Henry Darger, Throw-Away Boy, calls, “the commonly held belief that the figures represented Darger’s desire, that his paintings of a child eviscerated, strangled, or crucified meant that he wanted to harm children.” Darger’s manuscripts included a ten-year weather journal and a 5,000-page memoir starring a tornado named “Sweetie Pie,” but the bulk of his art was meant to illustrate the 15,000-page opus 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. It told of a decades-long battle between the heathen Glandelinians and the enslaved Christian Angelinian children, who were forced
to work naked and routinely crucified, strangled, and eviscerated… “tortured by flogging, suspensions, pouring boiling tar or water over their heads, suffocation, strangulation, amputation of their fingers, burning with hot irons…” Some were used “for wicked purposes” – sexually – by the soldiers. After their usefulness as slave laborers was over, some of the “girls” became sex slaves for civilian Glandelinians, “sold to factories of ill fame.”
In Elledge’s opinion, those who would cast this scenario and its attendant panoramas as a pedophilic fantasyland are offensively erroneous, and have impelled him to provide “a solid alternative response” to correct their misconceptions.
But at this point, to whom is this belief common? In the ten years since Elledge began his work, Darger’s art has been massively praised and intelligently analyzed, to the point where he now appears on the cusp of escaping Outsider status for a place in the mainstream canon. Peter Schjeldahl sees Darger “as significant a figure as Henri Rousseau,” whose paintings “constitut[e] a pictorial genre all their own. Their composition and uses of color deserve to be called masterly… Dismissing Darger as some kind of weirdo is not an option. His cosmos is thought through and expressed with imposing integrity.” Arthur Danto considers him ”a genius of stammering achievement.” Holland Cotter has called the paintings, “remarkably beautiful and deeply disturbing…extraordinary in every way… Whatever the wellsprings of Darger’s work, the result is a complete, profoundly imagined world, a saga of damnation and redemption spelled out in vernacular emblems.” And Robert Hughes decimates the shallow assessment by maintaining that
It would be easy in these prurient days to think of Darger merely as a compulsive old pervert—a sort of Poussin of pedophilia. (One art-historian-cum-psychiatrist opined in the New York Times that ‘psychologically, Darger was undoubtedly a serial killer,’ a wildly irresponsible judgment, since practically nothing is known about this character, and in any case, he never harmed a fly; much the same-and on the same evidence-could be said about the authors of the Old Testament.)
It makes more sense to relate his work, in all its extreme, inward-directed fantasies of evil and innocence, to Darger’s main lifeline, the Catholic faith. Catholic iconography, as anyone knows who is even briefly exposed to it (and Darger was marinated in its kitsch forms for 70 years), is suffused with Massacres of the Innocents, scenes of roasting, flaying and disemboweling of idealized martyrs, sinners in hellfire and visions of a countervailing Paradise. Rummaging back through fantasies for redemption of his own wretchedly maimed childhood, Darger was able to bind up his wounds with his religious fixations. This, in the end, is what gave his art a power that did not exist in his life.
Elledge acknowledges none of this – instead, he selectively quotes from Hughes and Cotter to cast them as perpetrators of the fallacious interpretation, and then continues to undermine his position by devoting Throw-Away Boy to his stubborn insistence on refuting a largely obsolete perspective held by superficial commentators. It’s clear throughout Throw-Away Boy that reverence trumped judgment, and that Elledge, in his determination to save Darger from his phantom critics, has instead created a biography hopelessly muddled with irrelevancies, riddled with mind-numbing pedantry and clichés. It’s inexplicably shoddy work, whose flaws are mitigated only by the belief that a faulty introduction to Henry Darger is better than none at all, and that buried in this murk are some insights valuable for a deeper appreciation of Darger’s achievement.
In Elledge’s telling, Darger grew up in a world that was Charles Dickens meets NAMBLA. Born in 1892, Darger lived with his father, a destitute drunk, in an unventilated two-room renovated stable in Chicago’s abysmal West Madison Street district. A younger brother had died in infancy, and his mother died giving birth to his sister, who was subsequently given up for adoption. This left Darger essentially alone in
one of Chicago’s most notorious vice zones…known throughout the Windy City as a poverty-stricken amusement park of sensualities, excesses, and debaucheries of all types…Alcoholism, drug addiction, gambling, missing parents (usually the father), and illnesses such as tuberculosis ravaged its families. Homeless men and boys crowded its streets and milled around purposelessly, prostitutes of both sexes displayed themselves on street corners and along the thoroughfares day and night… [and because] no laws barred children from the saloons, burlesque theaters, or whorehouses … children, including Henry, ran wild there.”
It was also a haven for pedophiles, who “cruised every nook and cranny” of the neighborhood, and at age seven, Darger was taken to the Cook County Insane Asylum, known by locals as Dunning, “because a policeman in his neighborhood caught him going to or coming from [visiting a] night watchman and likely engaging in other risky activities, many undoubtedly sexual in nature.”
Putting aside Elledge’s problematic habit of asserting likely engagement in undoubted activities, Darger’s time at Dunning did commence a journey through the rape dens of Illinois. Darger’s father, unable or unwilling to care for Henry, removed him from Dunning and placed him at the Mission of Our Lady of Mercy, a home for at-risk boys, where, “at eight years old and small for his age…[Darger] wasn’t in a situation in which he could get by without being at least one other boy’s sexual property.” He was tagged, not for the only time in his life, with the nickname “Crazy,” and was thrown out for what Darger refers to in his memoir as “strange things.”
As a child, Darger bullied smaller children, responded to punishment by slashing a nun with a knife, and retaliated against a neighbor who accused him of stealing wooden crates by setting them and, inadvertently, the man’s house on fire. But even Darger’s father had his limits, and when Henry, at age twelve, was caught masturbating in public, he was sent to the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children. More years of sexual predation and abuse followed, and it wasn’t until the death of his father that Henry escaped from the asylum. He walked 165 miles from Decatur to Chicago, and found employment as a janitor. At some point, he met Whillie Schloeder, a night watchman thirteen years his senior, and began a relationship that would last almost fifty years. And his animosity towards children was somehow transformed into a profound sympathy that inspired the work of a lifetime.
The dearth of verifiable details makes for a hopelessly spasmodic narrative, leaving Elledge to combine speculation with irrelevant sociological studies and sensationalistic anecdotes to force Darger into a sociocultural context. His account of the Asylum prior to Darger’s arrival focuses on a child gnawed by rats, another child left in boiling water, and incidents of self-castration, including a boy trying to shoot off his own penis. Darger’s poor treatment by nuns at his janitorial job is somehow linked to reports from the International Association of Factory Inspectors describing industrial accidents where one worker was cut in half on a circular saw, and another who was caught on a flywheel and had his arms and legs torn off. The story of “Stanley,” who spent his childhood rolling drunks and mugging homosexuals, is offered as a substitute “portrait of a typical boy’s life in Chicago in the early 1900s” to illustrate the activities that Darger, poor, like “Stanley,” might have been engaged in.
It’s a confused, and confusing, agenda, and misses entirely what makes Darger so poignant. The tragedy of Henry Darger’s life isn’t that he belonged to an oppressed class. It’s that he didn’t belong anywhere. He and Whillie formed a secret society called The Gemini “to protect children.” They did nothing except meet and talk about what they were going to do. They wanted to adopt a child. Darger went to a priest for advice, and was told to pray. No amount of proletarian dismemberment tales can possibly illuminate the fumbling attempts of this hapless man to fulfill his naïve, agonizing desire to save children from evil, nor can any testimony from a pseudonymous gay surrogate enrich the woeful fact that Darger’s only loving relationship was with a partner equally weak-willed and lacking in practical intelligence. The only way Darger really protected children was by not repeating the sexual abuse he had suffered as a boy. This must have provided very cold comfort, and ultimately, Darger’s is simply the tale of how an irreversibly broken man, unable to find a purpose in this world, invented one where he could.
It was an invention born of torment, and a different book emerges when Elledge leaves social stratification and gets to his main point, which is a solid one – that any misreadings of Darger’s paintings come from the assumption that he represented himself as perpetrator rather than victim, and that the atrocities were pornographic snuff fantasies rather than metaphorical renderings of how he had been desecrated throughout his childhood.
Elledge convincingly analyzes The Realms as veiled autobiography, with Darger casting the benevolent figures from his life as Angelinians, and those who had been cruel as Glandelinians, finding in his adolescent experiences the materials for an epic of catastrophe and absolution:
While in the Asylum, Henry had harbored fantasies about leading the ‘bright boys’ in a rebellion against Dr. Hardt’s evil forces, the Asylum staff who strangled and beat the children and the men and older boys who sexually abused them. The Asylum’s caregivers were the prototypes for Henry’s Glandelinians. However, instead of depicting himself in his novel as the leader of the rebellion against the evil Glandelinians, Henry created the Vivian girls, seven young sisters, and their brother, Penrod, who come to the child slave’s rescue by engaging themselves as spies for the rebellion, devising military strategy with the good Angelinians, and even occasionally joining with them in battle.
Henry metamorphosed his commitment to the Asylum into Angelinian children being stolen away by Glandelinians. His work at the State Farm became children forced into slave labor. His escape from the Asylum transformed into children rebelling against the evil adults who enslaved them in the first place. He easily altered the various abuses that he experienced – especially those at the Asylum and its farm, but also at the Mission, Dunning, and the thoroughfares of West Madison Street – into children being crucified, eviscerated, or otherwise tortured. Ultimately, Henry converted nearly every struggle he faced, from the time he was almost kidnapped and raped by [a] ‘skidrow bum’ when he was playing on Adams Street to his escape from the Asylum, into a battle of good and evil.
The sudden clarity and sense of authority are bracing. So too are Elledge’s explanations of Darger’s technique of tracing and enlarging images from magazines and coloring books, how his style evolved with his manipulation of appropriated materials, and where Darger drew inspiration for the Vivian girls, from the silent film star Mary Pickford, “adultlike children [that] were ubiquitous in American popular culture at the time,” and an obsession with news reports of Elsie Paroubek, a five-year old girl whose kidnapping and murder in 1911 galvanized Chicago. And as to the reasoning behind giving the Vivian girls penises, one of the great mysteries of Darger’s iconography, Elledge’s scholarship in queer studies results in an intriguing conclusion:
When he depicted them naked, it’s obvious that the Vivian girls aren’t girls at all but hermaphrodites… For Henry, they represent the psychic hermaphrodites that he, and many around him associated with belles, fairies, pansies, queens, and queers. Sexologists of the time would have catalogued them as physical representations of the concept of “anima muliebris in corpore vili inclusa” – a female soul enclosed in a male body…
[F]or centuries, gay men had used the figure of the hermaphrodite, usually a female body with male genitalia, to represent themselves. To explain why they were men who were sexually and romantically attracted to men, they theorized that, although their bodies were decidedly male, their souls were female… The question that faced me was: Could Darger have known this theory and, if so, what might that say about him?
Unanswerable. Most questions about Darger are. But it’s a rich entry point for those seeking to make sense of an often confounding vision, as well as Darger’s unending war with God, which Elledge sees as being fueled in no small part by Darger’s fury at not having been born a girl.
Fury over that, and so many other things, consumed the final years of Darger’s life, which were spent in physical and mental anguish. He suffered through arteriosclerosis, and pains throughout his body often kept him bedridden. He grew senile, bathed irregularly, wore layers of filthy clothes. He attended church up to five times a day, spoke to himself in different voices, sang “blasphemous songs” for hours, and according to David Berglund, sounded as if he was “reliving the arguments he had with the nuns.”
But as he raged against the God he blamed for depriving him of any chance at happiness, whose representatives both harbored and victimized him, whom he celebrated in his art only to be rewarded with further debilitation, he was abided by kindly neighbors who would bathe or feed him, take him to doctor appointments, or provide care when he was sick. Buried in the muddle of Throw-Away Boy is the proof that Henry Darger had already been saved, not by Jim Elledge, or by the church, or by the art world. It was by the residents of 851 Webster, who had no idea as they tended to him what was lying in those old trunks and in the twelve-foot long, homemade binders, but thought only to help an old man in pain.
Steve Danziger is managing editor of Fiction magazine and a contributing editor at Open Letters. In July he wrote for Open Letters about Orson Welles.