As much as we're fascinated by the art of Henry Darger — the self-taught artist whose life's work was discovered in his Chicago apartment after his death in 1973 — it has always made us more than a wee bit queasy. His thousands of drawings, paintings and manuscript pages for two unpublished novels — including a vast fantasy epic featuring the often violent adventures of naked hermaphrodite children known as the Vivian Girls — have intrigued and shocked three generations. What could have possessed Darger to create such lurid imagery?
Was he a would-be child molester, maybe even a potential serial killer?
In "Henry Darger, Throwaway Boy: The Tragic Life of an Outsider Artist," poet and queer-studies scholar Jim Elledge answers those questions and more. Far from a possibly dangerous madman, the Darger who emerges in Elledge's book is a victim of childhood abuse who spent many years in a romantic relationship with another man. In the process, Elledge suggests a new framework for viewing Darger's work.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
Printers Row Journal caught up with Elledge, director of the M.A. in Professional Writing Program at Kennesaw State University, for a phone interview from his home in Atlanta. Here's an edited transcript.
Q: In "Throwaway Boy," you set out to address what you view as misconceptions about Darger. Could you list some of them?
A: Sure. After Darger's work began to be exhibited, people accused him of having been a pedophile, a serial killer, a sadist — based on what they saw in the paintings, not on any kind of research or knowledge of him.
Q: There's also the idea that Darger suffered from some form of mental illness — schizophrenia or Asperger's, for example.
A: Yes, there's a huge misconception about that. People found out that he'd been locked up, but few people bothered to figure out why. In 1904, when he was 12 years old, Darger was put in the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln, Ill., near Springfield; he was diagnosed as a "self-abuser." That was a term used at the time for masturbator. He'd been caught masturbating, and they locked him up in the asylum because of that, not for any other reason. There's no evidence that he was schizophrenic. He was, at the end of his life, a cranky old man who'd been treated very badly when he was a kid. He died at 81 from heart disease and senility, so some of what people remember about him was the senility taking over.
Q: The subject that comes up most often when I hear people talking about Darger is his images of little girls with penises. There are a lot of theories about that, including the idea that Darger didn't realize that little girls don't have the same genitalia as boys. But you don't believe that.
A: No, not a bit. Until he ran away from the asylum in 1909, he lived almost exclusively among boys and young men. It's very unlikely that some of them didn't tell him what female anatomy was like, or show him pictures; there was a lot of porn in those days, just as there is now. Young men and boys are always talking about sexuality, about women, the different parts, etc. So the idea that he could have grown up without knowing there's a difference between male and female anatomy seems really bizarre to me.
Q: The second-most frequently discussed topic around Darger, even today, is the extent to which it seems likely that he had some unhealthy sexual and/or sadistic interest in children. You address that in the book.
A: It does come up a lot, obviously, because the children in his illustrations are often being eviscerated, crucified, strangled and sometimes killed. Based on my research, those scenes of children being tortured by adults reflect what he experienced as a child — principally at the asylum, probably, but perhaps also elsewhere. There was an investigation by a committee formed by the legislature of the state of Illinois in 1908, the year before Darger ran away from the asylum, and the findings were published in a 1,000-page book in 1911. In that, there's evidence that children at the asylum were physically abused; they were beaten with boards, that sort of thing. And there's a hint that they were sexually abused.
Q: So his illustrations for his books are psychic responses to his own childhood trauma?
A: Absolutely. There's a moment in Darger's novel "The Realms of the Unreal" featuring two of the characters, Penrod and Joyce — Joyce is one of the Vivian sisters, and Penrod is her brother —and Penrod asks what rape is. "According to the dictionary, it means to undress a girl and cut her open to see the insides," says Joyce. I look at those images of all those children being cut open, and as far as I can tell, they're metaphors for rape. So Darger is painting what happened to him, and also what he witnessed, at the asylum and elsewhere. The paintings aren't a form of coded desire on his part; they're a confession of what happened to him.
Q: Let's turn to his relationship with William Schloeder — "Whillie," as Darger called him. You conclude that Darger was gay and that he and Whillie were a couple. What's the evidence for that?
A: To name just a few things: There's a character in Darger's second novel, "Further Adventures in Chicago: Crazy House," a bad little boy named Webber George. And Darger says about Webber George, "One cause mainly of the boy being bad was because he was angry at God for not having created him into a girl, which he wanted to be more than anything else." After that, Darger adds this little aside, addressing the reader directly in 19th-century fashion: "The reader may think this is strange, but the writer" — he means himself — "knows quite a number of boys who would give anything to have been born a girl." I think that's indicative of him being gay.
Q: You could also say it's indicative of gender confusion, which is not the same thing as homosexuality.
A: You could say that, except for the fact that this was written before the idea of gender confusion was much thought of. There was also a collection of first-person narratives by gay men, done in the 1920s and '30s — they're available in the special collections department of the University of Chicago library — in which a lot of the men say they would like to have been born female rather than male. There's no hint that they are not happy with their gender; it's more a matter of law, a matter of society. They felt that had they been born female, their desire to have relationships with men would be legitimate, which of course it wasn't in that time; in fact, they could be put in prison for up to 10 years for getting caught with another man. So when you think about what it was like when Darger was growing up, this quote becomes a very strong suggestion that he was gay. Even the fact that he knew about this idea reveals to me that he was a part of the gay community in Chicago at that time. It's very unlikely that somebody like Darger, who was not part of any sort of literary or artistic community, would have known these people if he weren't gay. There was a gay bar, in fact, two blocks from where he lived at 851 W. Webster, and it's possible that he met gay men there, or at other places in Chicago. When he died, they found his paintings, of course, but they also found his library. In his library was a book called "Condemned to Devil's Island," published in 1928. It portrays, in overt ways, sexual relationships between men in a prison off the coast of South America. The book was very popular among gay men at the time, and I think there's essentially no reason he would have had the book unless he'd heard about it and went out to buy it.
Q: What about Whillie?
A: I was absolutely sure that Whillie and Darger had a relationship at two points in my research. At one point in Darger's autobiography, he calls Whillie his "special friend," which was a phrase that gay men used in the late 1800s and early 1900s to refer to their boyfriends, partners, whatever. It was very common among them. After Whillie died, Darger wrote a letter to Whillie's sister, in which he says things that only a gay man would have expressed, especially on paper. He wrote: "I feel as if lost in empty space. Now nothing matters to me at all." Later he says, "I hope you will soon receive consolation, because the loss is hard to take. It sure is to me to lose him, for then too I lost all I had and had a hard time to stand it." These aren't the kind of things that straight men write to the sisters of their friends, even their best friends, in 1959, long before gay liberation.
Q: In his review of "Throwaway Boy" in Printers Row Journal, Darger scholar Michael Bonesteel says that as compelling as your arguments are, they rest "entirely on circumstantial evidence, ambiguous language and innuendo. He offers no indisputable proof that Darger was gay." Could you respond?
A: Well, I don't know what kind of evidence he would accept. Certainly there are no photographs of Henry Darger having sex with another man. There are no videotapes. If that's the kind of evidence that someone wants, that's not going to happen. But given what we know about gay life and gay history in this period, the mere fact that he called Whillie his "special friend" is a huge indication of their relationship, and what he wrote to Whillie's sister backs that up. And, you know, to think of him as having had love and someone who cared for him in his life, rather than as the bizarre, hermit-like person that most people have believed in up until this moment, is a wonderful thing.
Q: Bonesteel also accuses you of extrapolating from the facts to write "reenactments" of episodes in Darger's life — such as his desire to adopt a child, perhaps to be cared for by him and Whillie — that are "fiction."
A: I don't agree that it's "fiction." That word means "untruth," and I don't agree with it at all. In the case of the adoption, it seems to me very likely that Whillie would have been in some manner a part of the parenting of the child that Darger wanted to adopt. If a heterosexual couple, married or not, adopted a child, they would obviously both be a part of the parenting process. It's just logical to me that something similar would have happened with Darger and Whillie.
Q: How does all this new biographical information about Darger help us understand his art?
A: Well, to go back to where we began in this interview, I'm trying to correct the idea that the paintings depict the desire of a pedophile or a serial killer or a sadist; the paintings reveal other things, and our interpretation of them needs to change. That's what I hope my book will do.
Q: Of course, in that case, the images are still disturbing; they're just disturbing for a different reason.
A: Absolutely. They're still filled with images of children being sliced open, no matter what I or anyone else says about them. But it's the interpretation of what those images might mean that I'm looking to shift.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer whose work appears in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Poets & Writers Magazine and elsewhere.
"Henry Darger, Throwaway Boy"
By Jim Elledge, Overlook, 396 pages, $29.95
Jim Elledge will read from "Henry Darger, Throwaway Boy" at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 11 at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, 756 N. Milwaukee Ave. At 1 p.m. Oct. 12, Elledge, Michael Bonesteel and Mary Trent will have a panel discussion of their different approaches to Darger scholarship.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun