Entertainment :: Books

Henry Darger - Throw Away Boy

by Steve Weinstein
Contributor
Thursday Oct 17, 2013
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The title of this biography pretty much says it all. "Henry Darger: Throwaway Boy" not only summarizes a truly pathetic life, it embodies the way society, his family, the Catholic Church and every other institution Darger came into contact with failed him.

Except for a very brief stint in the Army during World War I and a much longer and more horrifying one in a Downstate Illinois asylum, Henry Darger never ventured very far from the Near North Chicago slum where he was born in 1892. His father a useless alcoholic, his mother dead at an early age, Darger became a throwaway boy when he was warehoused in an asylum for the mentally ill. The reason: He masturbated.

As author Jim Ellege makes clear, at the turn of the last century, "reformers," doctors and civil authorities (don’t even mention religion) took the term "self-abuse" seriously indeed. The Chicago institution was no picnic, but it was paradise compared to the Downstate one, to which he was subsequently confined.

If Darger’s childhood was far more Dickensian than anything Charles Dickens could come up with, he was cheated out of a decent adulthood by the nuns who ran the hospitals where he was put to work doing the most menial chores until old age and death finally released him. These religious sisters could have given any Nazi camp guard a run for his money.

What makes Darger’s story stand out from the all-too frequent hard-luck stories that populate this lousy world is what happened after he died. When his last landlord had his single room cleaned out, a discovery of piles of manuscripts and illustrations came to light.

These were mostly fantasies about a world inhabited by children, most of them girls, some of them girls with penises, who were enslaved and fought another tribe of adults. Stenciling from discarded newspapers, magazines and anything else he could find, Darger created colorful murals of the battles, tortures and triumphs of his imagined universe.

As per usual, the most elite critics, led by New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winner Holland Cotter, totally missed the point. The guy had to have been a serial killer, in thought if not in deed, they reasoned. No other sick mind could have fashioned such bizarrely horrifying narratives.

Using extensive historical research, author Jim Elledge connects Darger’s life to his imagination. Far from sadistic, Elledge maintains, Darger was trying to make sense of a cruel world that routinely discarded or abused children.

It’s a convincing argument, although Elledge has to resort to a lot of speculation. Since Darger existed in such obscurity, there wasn’t much to go on beyond the works themselves, including a shaggy-dog autobiography. So Elledge relies heavily on secondary material, such as newspaper stories, court documents and institutional records.

Often, this leads to speculation. The most-used phrases in the book are "probably" and "would have." Reconstructing scenes and dialogue is one thing; Elledge has a tendency to read too much into a single photograph or vague association to his source material.

Elledge kept me turning the page, but certain infelicities crop up that are surprising for someone who teaches writing at the college level. "As early as 1910, Henry began culling pictures ... soldiers of both the Civil War and World War I" -- remarkable indeed, since the war didn’t start for four more years.

More problematic is the constant use of quotes in the middle of sentences, which "makes it look" like one of "those annoying" reviews in the Zagat guides. Since he scrupulously gives the source for each page in the addendum, this is unnecessary and distracting.

Style qualms aside, Elledge has done a truly remarkable job in reconstructing the life of someone who didn’t leave much of a trace. Although claims of a night watchman abusing a very young Henry is overly speculative, there is little doubt that Darger’s one significant relationship outside of his own works was a long-term love affair with an older man.

Darger’s works sell for the hundreds of thousands of dollars and are given pride of place in established museums. He is studied by art historians and has become a pop idol. Patti Smith has performed Natalie Merchant’s song "Henry Darger" and a female rock band is called the Vivan Girls, after the girl-boys heroines of Darger’s sprawling novels.

All this happened too late for Darger. In 1973 he died in the same institution as his father. This book made me hope that there is a heaven, not only so that Henry could find happiness in the afterlife that eluded him in this one, but so that he knows that his life was not lived in vain.

by Jim Elledge

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early ’80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).

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