Jim Elledge, Henry Darger, Throwaway Boy: The Tragic Life of an Outsider Artist
New York, Overlook Press, 2013; 396 pages, $29.95.
Ever since the work of the now legendary Chicago-based outsider artist and writer Henry Darger came to light in 1977, four years after his death at age 81, there has been wild art world speculation about this reclusive person. What was his life like? What sort of mental condition and emotional state could have precipitated his outlandish creations, featuring images of sexually ambiguous and abused children? After Darger entered a nursing home near the end of his life, his landlord discovered hundreds of paintings and thousands of pages of text crammed into his tiny one-room apartment. Few biographical facts were available at the time, and any notions about the artist’s life had to be gleaned largely from the works he left behind.
Darger’s fanciful figurative compositions, many featuring naked children embroiled in marauding and mayhem, and his epic novels that these images were intended to illustrate, suggest a sexually confused and perhaps deranged individual with a seriously transgressive personality. Among the most eyebrow-raising aspects of Darger’s work is his penchant for depicting little girls with penises and showing children being violently attacked and murdered by adults.
Many commentators saw the artist as a solitary eccentric who had shut himself off almost completely from the outside world. He worked by day as a janitor and dishwasher, and at night immersed himself in a fantasy world, devoting long hours to painting and writing. Official records confirm that Darger was confined to a mental institution for some years as an adolescent. Early accounts treated him as one who knew little about society or the world at large, and who was for the most part ignorant of human sexuality-hence the strange girl-boy figures that populate his artworks. For the most part, however, his life remained frustratingly obscure.
In Henry Darger, Throwaway Boy: The Tragic Life of an Outsider Artist, Jim Elledge challenges previous studies of Darger. The author dismisses the perception of Darger as a hermitlike, celibate introvert, and goes a long—and sometimes rocky—way to argue that Darger had quite an active sex life, especially in his youth and early adulthood. While some critics have expressed skepticism about Elledge’s provocative view of the now acclaimed outsider, the biography has been generally well received as an important contribution to the ever-evolving effort to uncover the secrets of Darger’s life.
According to Elledge, the artist had a decades-long love affair with an older man. But due to the social mores of the times and to his own deep-seated Catholic faith, he lived out his adult life as a guilt-ridden and maniacally closeted homosexual. For Elledge, author of several volumes devoted to gay history and queer culture, Darger’s paintings and writings present a thinly veiled homosexual odyssey densely packed with covert references to the artist’s own life story and Chicago’s highly active gay subculture in the early years of the 20th century. The results of his study are fascinating, but problems with the book arise as Elledge too often relies on vague associations he finds (or thinks he finds) in Darger’s art, writing and archival material. In his relentless quest to out the outsider, the author matches Darger’s own obessiveness.
Elledge begins with an attempt to reconstruct Darger’s childhood, using the scant documentation available. Darger was born in 1892 to impoverished parents in one of Chicago’s seediest neighborhoods. He hardly knew his mother, who died a few days before he turned four, shortly after giving birth to a baby girl. This baby sister was immediately sent away for adoption; a younger brother had died previously, after just five months of life. Darger was raised by his father, Henry Sr., a German immigrant, who was an alcoholic and a negligent parent. The harsh realities of loss, abandonment and abuse that Darger faced in early childhood would, Elledge claims, later become central themes in his writing and painting.
Often left on his own for days, the boy roamed West Madison Street, known at the turn of the century as a hotbed for all sorts of vices. Its grungy bars, flophouses, brothels and “sex circuses” (theaters featuring scandalous live sex shows) attracted the worst variety of indigents and hustlers, and was a prime cruising ground for child predators. There were no laws barring children from these establishments, and Elledge believes that Darger frequented many of them at a very early age.
“Henry’s father’s absence didn’t just result in a breakdown in their relationship,” the author states; “it led to Henry’s putting himself in dangerous situations. The six-to-eight-year-old Henry became an easy target for adults.” To reconstruct the scene, Elledge uses the testimonies of several accused child molesters in the area, taken from sociological studies published in the early years of the century. One such witness, named Shorty, describes the activities of the young boys, called “punks” or “lambs,” on West Madison Street, willing to have sex with older men (“wolves”) for money, protection or pure carnal pleasure. Without hard evidence, Elledge makes a rather presumptuous leap by assigning Henry the role of a “lamb” engaged in the activities of a child prostitute, sometimes teaming with another boy to hustle money from older men. He further speculates that Darger was sexually victimized on a number of occasions when his schemes went awry.
There is, in any case, substantial evidence that Darger was in fact a troubled youth. By the time he was eight, he had on record several run-ins with the law, and his violent and erratic behavior got him ejected with regularity from the Catholic school he attended. On one occasion he threw ashes into the eyes of a young girl, whose medical expenses had to be paid by Henry Sr.. Later, the boy slashed the face and arm of a nun, one of his teachers, with a knife during class. His father, whose health was rapidly deteriorating, placed him in a school for wayward boys, where his reputation as a sociopathic troublemaker only grew, and all sorts of sexual situations presented themselves to Henry, at least in Elledge’s view. Eventually, Henry Sr. had his son forcibly admitted to the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln. On the application, Henry Sr. cited as the boy’s primary reason for being institutionalized his excessive “self-abuse,” or masturbation, perceived as a grave malady at the time.
Elledge’s reconstruction of Darger’s early life is impressive and entertaining. But it reads like a mildly sensationalistic novel. His efforts to bring his subject to life by means of invented conversations and largely fictionalized scenarios sometimes fall flat and spoil the credibility of his interpretation.
The second half of the book improves significantly as Henry finally escapes the mental institution after his father dies. He returns to Chicago in 1909, takes a job as a janitor and commences his life’s work: the two vast novels: 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 (over 15,000 pages) and Further Adventures in Chicago: Crazy House (over 10,000 pages). He also produces the myriad paintings and works on paper illustrating the struggles of the Vivian sisters and their brother, Penrod, an effeminate boy whom Elledge identifies as one of Darger’s many alter egos. Together, they help the Angelinian forces combat the military hordes of the Glandelinians, bent on general havoc and, above all, child enslavement.
In his final years Darger was working on a rather fanciful autobiography, The History of My Life. As an adult, he saved countless photos and mementos that crowded his tiny living space. Luckily, his landlord, Nathan Lerner, also an artist, recognized the significance of Darger’s output when he discovered it after Darger entered a home for the aged a few months before his death. Upon Darger’s demise, the Lerners sold off some of the paintings but kept the place as Darger had left it. The contents are now preserved in Chicago’s Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art.
Elledge treats Darger’s ambitious endeavor as an obsessively detailed reimagining of his childhood and adolescence. He associates many of the villains in the novels with authoritarian figures from the various institutions where Darger spent his youth. Darger often refers to the heroic Vivian girls and their girl-boy cohorts as “fairies,” a familiar code word for homosexuals. And some of the otherworldly scenes Darger describes are, from Elledge’s point of view, simply colorful restagings of West Madison Street and its attendant horrors and excitements.
At the core of Elledge’s biography is a bittersweet love story surrounding Darger’s ostensible relationship with William Schloeder, or “Whillie,” a night watchman and son of a successful lumber company owner, who was 13 years Darger’s senior. Nothing is known of how they met, around 1911, but Elledge traces their subsequent relationship through correspondence, photos and references to Whillie that appear in Darger’s books. Here, Elledge also asks the reader to indulge him in a fair amount of presumption and innuendo.
Henry and Whillie never lived together, but they spent much of their free time in each other’s company. Biding by the social rules of the day, they apparently kept their affair a secret throughout their entire lives. In 1945, Whillie relocated to San Antonio with his sister. It was a devastating blow to Henry, from which he never fully recovered. Over the next three decades, he withdrew ever further into the fantasy world he had created through writing and painting. Here and throughout the book, Elledge does a commendable job of humanizing Darger, attributing to this once mysterious character a sympathetic demeanor and a passionate life. If only it could be fully believed.
DAVID EBONY is an A.i.A. contributing editor who writes a bimonthly column for Yale University Press online.