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Henry Darger, in the realms of the possibly real

A new biography of the outsider artist has too much to prove, and not enough to prove it with.

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175 at Jennie Richee. Everything Is Allright Though Storm Continues - © KIYOKO LERNER; PHOTO BY JAMES PRINZ
  • © Kiyoko Lerner; photo by James Prinz
  • 175 at Jennie Richee. Everything Is Allright Though Storm Continues

Henry Darger, Throw-Away Boy: The Tragic Life of an Outsider Artist
By Jim Elledge (Overlook Press)

Like any work of nonfiction, a biography relies on an interactive trust between author and audience. The audience grants it because the author earns it. And so it is not heartening to learn, early on in his book, that a biographer has "intentionally dramatized details of the events depicted in order to bring them to life for the reader," to create scenes that are, "by necessity, a literary reconstruction." What necessity? Whose? That's not addressed, but these sentences hang over Jim Elledge's Henry Darger, Throw-Away Boy: The Tragic Life of an Outsider Artist, provoking suspicion again and again. In a conversation between an old man and a doctor, taking place in 1904, for instance, the old man says something "in a whisper," while the doctor speaks in a "lowered, authoritative voice." You end up focusing less on the history than the historiography, less on the window dressing than on your hunch that the building might be on fire. Is this cinematic scene, which opens the book, even real?

Later the old man's son, escaped from an asylum, passes a stockyards; the author has him identifying, in spirit, with the cows penned up inside. More weightily, Elledge claims—on weak though not impossible evidence—that the boy was the victim of repeated abuse, in particular sexual abuse. This is roughly the book's thesis, which the author prosecutes over and over; but he's already proven himself difficult to take seriously.

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Henry Darger, Throw-Away Boy mixes speculative fiction with researched biography. Elledge, a writing instructor and the author of several books on queer culture and history, was moved to write it after reading what he considered too much lewd gossip about Darger, an unknown while he lived, now a premier outsider artist. Darger's oeuvre, which includes a fantastical 15,000-page manuscript and the lavish illustrations he created to go with it, is focused exclusively—exhaustively, obsessively—on children, who are subjected to awful violence: rape, torture, death. Critics have wondered what Darger's subject matter says about its author's feeling toward children. Some have brought up, with a hint of accusation, five-year-old Elsie Paroubek, who was kidnapped from her home southwest of the Loop when Darger was a young man. She was later found dead, and possibly raped; the case was never solved. Darger kept her picture in his apartment. As an older man, he wrote a sort of cri de coeur that might give us a clue about his passions: "Do you believe it, unlike most children, I hated to see the day come when I will be grown up. I never wanted to. I wished to be young always."

Darger a few years before his death - DAVID BERGLUND
  • David Berglund
  • Darger a few years before his death

Henry Darger was born in Chicago, probably in 1892, into a poor Catholic family and a rough circumstance: when he was an infant his parents moved to West Madison Street, around Halsted, which Elledge describes as "one of Chicago's most notorious vice zones." His mother died in childbirth when Darger was three years old and his father descended into alcoholism and destitution. Unsupervised, Darger "ran wild" through their rough neighborhood, racking up an impressive record: setting a fire, slashing a nun with a knife, throwing ashes into the eyes of a peer. At age 12 he was sent to a Catholic home for boys after he was caught masturbating in public.

Two themes echo throughout the book. The first was that Darger was repeatedly exposed to scenarios where sexual abuse was possible, even common; this is enough for Elledge to conclude that Darger was abused. Reading of a childhood moment in Darger's memoirs, he writes, "Although there's no direct evidence to indicate that he had been sexually victimized yet, Henry coolly recounted an experience that he had with an adult that shows the threat of sexual victimization with which he lived daily." The experience is that Darger noticed a homeless man following him on the street; he threw a brick and eluded him. Another experience isn't Henry's at all but that of "Stanley," a local boy who grew up to write about the area's moral degeneracy. "His portrait of West Madison Street . . . confirms what can be assumed from Henry's clues" about his childhood, Elledge writes. In fact it doesn't, but this is a good example of Elledge's style of argument: he makes a suggestion, finds an unrelated though perhaps parallel example, and then acts as if he's proven a point.

Untitled (Portrait of Colonel Jack Francis Evans) - © KIYOKO LERNER
  • © Kiyoko Lerner
  • Untitled (Portrait of Colonel Jack Francis Evans)

The second theme is that the victimization we're meant to take as fact profoundly affects Darger's psyche. To the extent there seemed at least something psychologically awry with Darger, this is worth pursuing, but Elledge's telling sets Darger up for a life best expressed in blustery psychobabble, which he cues up on repeat: "denial as a strategy," "defense mechanism," "self-analysis," "rationalization," "denial," "overwhelming sense of abandonment," "denial . . . coping strategy," "denial," "defense mechanism," "defense strategy," "separation anxiety," "full of denial." This brings us to the end of chapter three, in a book of ten chapters.

After Darger is expelled from the boys' home he's sent to a downstate institute for "feeble-minded children," where he does or does not experience further sexual abuse; he's a terse memoirist, and his memoirs, which he wrote toward the end of his life, are the chief source here, and the only way to access Darger's interior life. Elledge alternates between finding them credible and incredible, as the narrative demands—the recurring assumption being that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. (For those keeping track, this is the sort of logic that gave us the war in Iraq.) Escaped from the institute in 1908, Darger is caught in Chicago and sent for the second time to Dunning, the local insane asylum (his first stint was as a young boy), where he's held a month before being sent back. Elledge writes, "Despite such a lengthy stay, he never once even hinted about what happened to him behind its walls, which may suggest how traumatic it had been for him." Years later Darger calls his stay at the downstate institute "uneventful but busy," which could be an even-handed description of being put to menial work every day as the ward of a turn-of-the-century mental asylum. Elledge reads it as "another phrase full of denial."

The north wall of Darger's room - MICHAEL BORUCH
  • Michael Boruch
  • The north wall of Darger's room

The author's citation style is idiosyncratic, relying on Darger's memoirs to support unreliable assumptions while failing to credit what look, on the surface, like actual facts (a machinist, illustrating the era's dangerous working conditions, "got his arm caught in a rapidly moving belt"—this has to have come from somewhere). At one point he has Darger "admitting" to his roommate that he's working on a novel. The endnote leads not to evidence of Darger's admission but to text accompanying a museum exhibit that described the content of the novel—a fairly bland description that Elledge probably could've come up with himself, given that he's read the work. More gravely, reviewer Steve Danziger points out in Open Letters Monthly that Elledge takes issue with the art critic Robert Hughes, who, Elledge writes, "wondered if Henry might not be considered 'the Poussin of pedophilia,'" referring to the French Baroque painter. Refuting this sort of perceived defamation is the raison d'etre of Elledge's book, but the full quote reveals Hughes wondering, or rather coming out and saying, basically the opposite of what Elledge suggests: "It would be easy in these prurient days to think of Darger merely as a compulsive old pervert—a sort of Poussin of pedophilia," Hughes wrote in Time magazine. "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."

When one of his escape attempts finally works, Darger makes it back to Chicago. He finds work as a janitor and, more importantly, and possibly for the first time in his life, he finds a real friend—"friend" in the pre-Stonewall euphemistic sense. Whillie is an older man, whom Darger may have met at church. Their relationship spanned decades. In their time together they went sometimes to the old Riverview Amusement Park, which Elledge says was a popular gathering spot for gay men. They had their portrait taken together on a set designed to look like a caboose. It's captioned, in the style of the times, with a jaunty phrase—"We're on our way"—which provokes from Elledge a special inanity ("The caption suggests a journey to an actual destination, especially because of the train motif, but it also refers to a metaphoric journey—their relationship").

There now comes a shift in the book's content matter, which parallels a shift in tone and method so abrupt it's almost as if a new author has taken over. Darger, discovering himself as a writer and an artist, gets down to work. Elledge, meanwhile, proves himself a far better cultural critic than biographer in his close reading of Darger's 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—basically a Christian-flavored epic of good and evil, where good children are constantly under threat of victimization by a sadist force known as the Glandelinians.

Oddly, it's in this section on Darger's fiction, as opposed to the spotty record of his life, that Elledge makes a persuasive case about the horrors of his childhood. Some of the suffering in Realms recalls, in detail, a special committee's report on abuses at Darger's downstate institution; Elledge hasn't previously shown Darger to have been witness to those abuses, but it becomes apparent he must have at least known about them. The connections Elledge draws reveal some of Darger's cultural influences: he copied without attribution from at least two books, one written by a Catholic mystic; he kept a scrapbook of newspaper clippings from scenes of fires; he traced Little Miss Muffet to use in his work; his art contained allusions to the Civil War, and some of it suggests gay sex.

The east wall of Darger's room - MICHAEL BORUCH
  • Michael Boruch
  • The east wall of Darger's room

More intriguingly, Darger created a universe of characters with complicated genders, who've typically been described by critics as "hermaphrodites"—many of his little girls have penises. One fascinating detail here is that most of what Darger did was trace; the only original drawing, Elledge says, was where characters are nude. Darger scholar Michael Bonesteel writes that there are "a number of possibilities, none very satisfying," for the girls with penises; one may simply be that Darger didn't know what female genitals looked like, and this was his best guess.

About Darger's "Vivian girls," the band of sisters who are the heroes of his story, Elledge asserts they're a symbol of male femininity—of gay men, essentially—and claims that, where Darger writes "girls," "we have to substitute 'girl-boys.'" But do we? Realms and other writing expresses Darger's unease with gender, which may be linked to his sexuality but may be independent of it. He sometimes wrote himself into his work as a female character. Remarkably, he kept a correspondence for a while with a nun he'd befriended who'd moved away, doctoring the letters he received from her so that she was addressing him as female. He erased his own name and replaced it with "Annie Aronburg," a character from his work who may have been inspired by Elsie Paroubek. Once, when the nun wrote, "I am glad that you are trying to be even a better boy since I left," Darger substituted the word "girl."

About a fictional character, Darger wrote this: "One cause mainly of the boy being bad, and a foolish one at that was because he was angry at God for not having created him into a girl which he wanted to be more than anything else." Elledge elides an obvious possibility about the gender identities of Darger and his contemporaries with a single sentence: "Initially this might seem as if they believed that they were transgendered, but the context in which they admitted dissatisfaction with their gender has nothing to do with feeling that their gender didn't match their bodies."

What Darger himself left behind, though, raises more questions than this book answers. Elledge's quick dismissal of it indicates his agenda, which he expresses in various ways throughout: he wants to queer Henry Darger, to claim him, free of any gender confusion, for the gay cause the way we like to claim historical figures like Walt Whitman and Jane Addams. The book points in one direction, toward one story: whereas some have thought of Darger as deviant, here he's an abuse victim and a gay man in an era when being a gay man was nearly impossible.

It's a sympathetic story, and an attractive one, and it may well be true. But Elledge's project, which leaves no room for ambiguity, presents both aesthetic and ethical issues. Ethically, a book that takes liberties with facts is objectionable enough. The loose guesswork functions here to trivialize sexual abuse, which is more a narrative device, necessary for Elledge to prove his thesis, than an established reality of Darger's life.

Aesthetically, Elledge's assumption that he needs to fabricate scenes "to bring them to life for the reader" doesn't credit the reader with much appreciation for nuance, or mystery; speaking for myself, Darger's story is rich enough with the evidence at hand. The evidence suggests, while Elledge asserts. He's trying to apply a coherent narrative to a life—a structure famously resistant to coherent narrative. It's important to note here that what he writes is possibly—even, at times, probably—true. But really, that doesn't make any difference.

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