by Jim Elledge
Internationally-recognized, self-taught artist Henry Darger lived in utter poverty his entire life. Not long after he was born in Chicago (April 12, 1892), his impoverished parents moved out of the respectable, blue-collar neighborhood in which they had lived for several years into a coach-house apartment behind 165 West Adams just west of the Loop. That address was at the threshold of Chicago’s most notorious vice district, called West Madison Street after its chief thoroughfare.
Henry’s father went into a tailspin after a string of tragedies blind-sided him. His second son, Arthur, born a year and a half after Henry, died when he was only five months old, and then his wife Rosa died giving birth to their third child, a daughter. Almost sixty years old, too old (he felt) to be taking care of both an infant and a toddler, he immediately put his daughter up for adoption. The loss of his wife and children was too much for him, and he abandoned himself to drink and Henry to the dark streets—and even darker denizens—of West Madison Street.
Henry’s experiences during his earliest days in the vice district were, in a word, horrific as his autobiography, The History of My Life, reveals. He purposely knocked down children younger than he; sliced his teacher’s face and arms with a knife he carried when she punished him for an infraction; flung ashes into the eyes of a little neighborhood girl; committed arson to get even with a neighbor man; was nearly kidnapped by a homeless man; had a relationship with a night watchman; and was removed from his father’s house by authorities who institutionalized him in Dunning among the insane, indigent, and mentally ill—all before he was eight years old. Henry’s anger, violent behavior, and early sexual activities are symptomatic of child sexual abuse. Small for his age, Henry was an easy target.
In 1900, embarrassed by his eight-year-old son’s conduct and unable to cope with him, Henry’s father pawned the boy off on the priests who ran the Mission of Our Lady of Mercy, where he would live for the next four years. After more behavioral problems, which included being involved sexually with at least three other boys at the Mission, the priests told Henry’s father that Henry had to go. By then, his father was living in St. Augustine’s Home for the Aged, had no money with which to help his son, and had no room to take him in. Instead, he contacted a doctor, told him that Henry had been masturbating since he was six years old (another symptom of sexual abuse), and asked him to examine the boy. After meeting with Henry on two separate occasions, Dr. Otto Schmidt helped Henry’s father to fill out the form that would allow them to exile the now twelve-year-old to the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln, IL. On Thanksgiving Day 1904, Tim Rooney took Henry by train to the Asylum.
Institutionalizing children for “self-abuse” (the term that was most often used for masturbation) was entirely legal and ubiquitous at the time. Physicians across the country supported institutionalization, and some even went so far as to recommend castration. Henry wasn’t the only boy sent to the Asylum for self-abuse. In fact, four other boys—three, twelve, thirteen, and nineteen years old—were admitted within of a month of the day when Henry arrived, each because of self-abuse.
As it turned out, the Asylum was a hellhole. While attendants had many techniques that they used to control the boys in their care, they were fond of strangling boys until they were close to blacking out, their tongues protruding and their faces turning blue. In such a condition, the boys were unable or unwilling to resist whatever the adult had in mind for them. At the same time, the prisons in Illinois had been filled to capacity, and the courts decided to send the overflow of male criminals to live—and sleep—among the boys at the Asylum. The smaller, weaker boys were at the mercy of the larger, stronger boys and men in the beds beside them.
Henry’s father died in May 1908, and the sixteen-year-old Henry began running away from the Asylum. His first escape was in June of that year, but he was quickly caught and returned. He tried again at least three more times the following summer, and on July 25, 1909, he succeeded. He and the two boys who escaped with him worked for a German farmer near Decatur, IL for a week. Then he walked 165 miles back to Chicago, arriving there in mid-August. He got a job as a janitor at St. Joseph’s Hospital on the Near North Side. The nuns who had founded and ran it treated him horribly, and he finally quit, getting a job as a dishwasher at Grant Hospital. After begin caught up in a power play there, Henry was told to resign. He did, and a week later, he returned to St. Joseph’s, this time as a dishwasher. After giving him a three-week vacation, something unheard of for the holders of menial jobs in those days, the nuns fired him the day he returned because, they claimed, they wanted him to take care of himself. His health was becoming a problem for Henry. Within approximately two weeks, he was hired at Alexian Brothers and worked there as dishwasher, then as a vegetable washer/peeler, and last as a bandage roller. He was forced to retire because of his bad health when he was seventy-one years old
In 1911, he’d met and formed a relationship with William Schloeder, a man thirteen years older than he. Although they never lived under the same roof, they spent every free second they had together. Whillie, as Henry referred to him, was a night watchman and may have been the man whom Henry slipped out at night to visit when he was eight years old. Their relationship lasted forty-eight years. Whillie died in 1959, and almost immediately, extremely sharp, debilitating pain began to attack Henry’s legs and abdomen, eventually causing him to become lame. Probably brought on by the heart disease that was then developing, the pains were also undoubtedly aggravated by his distress over Whillie’s death.
Shortly after Henry returned to Chicago from the Asylum, he began writing the first of three novels, 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. What Henry thought of as a children’s novel, The Realms, as its title is often abbreviated, is an extremely detailed yarn of over 15,000 manuscript pages about a rebellion lead by a group of children, whom Henry called “the Vivian Girls,” and their brother Penrod against adults who had rounded up children, enslaved them, and forced them to work naked. The adults took delight in torturing (including strangling), eviscerating, and crucifying the children. Because Henry meant The Realms as a children’s novel, he decided to illustrate it. The novel’s illustrations are the paintings for which Henry is now internationally known, and many of them depict children being ripped open, choked, and nailed to various wooden structures and trees, as well as other scenes in the novel.
The paintings also reveal something interesting about Henry’s “Vivian Girls.” They aren’t girls at all. Despite the fact that they appear female—dressing in skirts and blouses, wearing their blonde hair in pigtails, and having female names—they have penises. Henry reveals this fact when he depicts them nude on his canvasses, as he often does. (Many other “girls” on his canvasses also have penises, as do the boys whom he adds to the scenes.) As hermaphroditic figures, they represent a type of man-loving-man, the “fairy,” who was visible during the late 1800s through the 1930s or so and who was written about in newspapers, medical articles, novels, and reports about the visitors to and residents of Chicago’s vice districts.
His second novel, Further Adventures in Chicago: Crazy House (often shorted to Crazy House), also stars the Vivian girl-boys and Penrod. Set in Henry’s old neighborhood, West Madison Street, it offers many clues to his childhood there, including his sexual escapades, and his experiences as an adult with Chicago’s nascent gay subculture. The Vivian girl-boys know a great deal about the sexual goings-on in the neighborhood, date older men, and cruise the streets for sex mates. Their brother Penrod has several affairs with other boys and even older men. One of the Vivian girl-boys, Angeline, is rumored to have performed a live sex show on the stage of a neighborhood burlesque house.
Henry’s third novel, The History of My Life, begins as a typical autobiography, although its stream-of-conscious style makes it difficult to figure out the chronology of the events he described. Then on page 206, Henry transformed his memoir into a third novel. In it, he and two companions track a tornado that has laid waste to the area that surrounds the Asylum, killing thousands of men, women, and children and destroying millions of dollars of property, including various orphanages and similar buildings that represent the Asylum. Henry’s last novel is a revenge narrative.
Throughout his life, Henry collected a variety of items that in time grew so large that the single room in which he lived looked more like a junk heap than living quarters. Not a typical “hoarder,” his collection had purpose and order. Untrained in art in any way, Henry couldn’t draw but he could trace, and so his canvasses are populated by children and adults—and buildings, animals, plants, trains, clouds—that he traced from newspapers, magazines, coloring books, circulars, and other popular culture sources onto his canvasses and then colored in, as if he were a child with a coloring book. Instead of using the sources and throwing them away, Henry used pieces of twine that he picked up off the street and tied end-to-end into lengthy strands to bundle his source materials together. He then stacked them in his room.
Finally, too ill to take care of himself, Henry moved into St. Augustine’s Home for the Aged in November 1972, the same nursing home in which his father had died seventy years earlier, and his landlord, Nathan Lerner, decided to clean out Henry’s room. He hired Henry’s neighbor, David Berglund for the job, and after a few days of hauling trash out to a Dumpster, Berglund found Henry’s paintings and manuscripts. He reported his find to Lerner, who halted the project, and approached Darger to ask him what he wanted Lerner to do with the items. Henry told Lerner to keep them. (He had told Berglund, who also approached Henry about what to do with them, to throw everything away.)
Henry died the day after his eighty-first birthday, April 13, 1973, succumbing to heart disease and senility. Those who remember him do so with fondness and not a little bit of bewilderment over their friend’s secret life as an artist and novelist. All acknowledge his gentle spirit while admitting that he was an unsociable grouch. Most were considerably younger than he by decades and could not have guessed the causes of his grumpiness: the depth of his sorrow brought on by Whillie’s death and the utter loneliness that followed; the extent and severity of his guilt over being sexually abused; the limitlessness of his sense of abandonment created first by his father and then by almost everyone else he knew; and the intensity of the physical pain that he suffered and that grew stronger day by day until he died. The heart disease and senility with which he was suffering only complicated matters. Those who knew him just thought he was peculiar.
Lerner didn’t just keep Henry’s art and novels. He preserved them. After Berglund cleaned up the room, Lerner stored Henry’s personal items—clothing, furniture, typewriter, paints and brushes, and a large number of the source materials (the newspapers and magazines that he and Berglund had initially thought of as trash)—in the room, unoccupied and frozen in time, for the next twenty-eight years. In the meantime, Henry’s landlords began selling his paintings, and within a very short time, his work was being exhibited worldwide and appearing on the market for tens of thousands of dollars, although during his entire life, Henry never made more than $3,000 in any given year.
I’ve spent the last ten years conducting research on Henry Darger and have recently completed Throw-Away Boy: A Life of Henry Darger because, quite simply, I wanted to correct the misconceptions about him and his work that arose almost at the moment that his paintings were first exhibited at the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago in 1977. Thanks to C.F. Morrison’s photographic record of that exhibit, we know which of his paintings were shown. Among them were several of his portraits of characters who appear in his novels, Edenic scenes peopled by clothed and naked children (many of them girl-boys), battle scenes between the evil Glandelinians and the good Abbieannians, and horrifying scenes of children being eviscerated, crucified, and tortured. It was the latter canvasses that caught the eye and imagination of many reviewers.
In the years that followed, art critics and reviewers riveted their attention on the fact that Henry had been institutionalized without knowing why. None had read a word—or only a few words—of Henry’s novels, journals, or letters. None had ever conducted in-depth research about Henry’s life, the culture in which he lived, or even what “self-abuse” or the hermaphroditic figures might have meant. That didn’t stop them from deciding that he must have been mentally deranged, and at a loss to explain the horrific scenes in some of his paintings, they insisted Henry was a pedophile, a serial killer, or a sadist—or all three. Even when John MacGregor announced in his tome, Henry Darger: In the Realms of the Unreal (2002), that Henry’s so-called mental illness was masturbation, something no intelligent person has thought of as a mental disease since the mid-twentieth century, neither he nor any one else put Henry’s institutionalization in proper perspective. The misconceptions have continued to obscure Henry’s life and work and are as strong at this moment in time as they’ve ever been.
Besides my biography of Henry, I’ve written a second book. Entitled H, it is a collection of prose poems that deals in a surrealistic manner with Henry’s life. The seven prose poems that follow are selections from it. They aren’t meant as factual portraits of Henry’s experiences, but as impressions of them.
About the Author: Jim Elledge’s H, a collection of prose poems, is due summer 2012 from Lethe Press, and his biography of Henry Darger, Throw-Away Boy, is forthcoming from Overlook Press. Who’s Yer Daddy? Gay Writers Celebrate Their Mentors and Forerunners, which he co-edited with David Groff, is due from the University of Wisconsin Press. His A History of My Tattoo: A Poem won the Lambda Literary Award and the Georgia Author of the Year award in poetry, both in 2006. His work has appeared in Paris Review, Jubilat, Five Fingers Review, Denver Quarterly, North American Review, and other journals. He directs the M.A. in Professional Writing Program at Kennesaw State University and lives in Atlanta. Visit his blog on Darger, The Grandma Moses of Perversity for more information about Darger.