Wednesday, January 8, 2014

A Rosary of Teardrops: The Life of Henry Darger

by Alastair Johnston 

HENRY DARGER: THROWAWAY BOY The Tragic Life of an Outsider Artist by Jim Elledge (Overlook Duckworth, 2013, 396 pp., illus., $29.95)

Long after his death in 1973 Henry Darger emerged, first as another curious figure in Outsider Art in America, then gradually, as the extent of his work became known, as a remarkable self-taught artist whose obsessions resulted in awkward, childish, brilliantly colored surreal paintings and the longest work of fiction ever written, In the Realms of the Unreal.

John M. MacGregor, a psychologist interested in the mental state of Outsider Artists, wrote the first study of his work (which appeared as Dans les Royaumes de l’IrrĂ©el: le Monde de Henry Darger, from Art Brut in Lausanne, 1995, before appearing in English), stating emphatically that Darger had "the mind of a serial killer" and was possibly a "murderer and pedophile." During his decline into senility, Darger’s landlords, Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner, hired a neighbor to clear out the packrat’s Chicago apartment and only then discovered it contained art and writing: the distillation of his years of longing and scavenging in quest of something unobtainable. The landlords’ (who benefited to the tune of millions from Darger’s art) only acquaintance with the recluse had been occasional remarks about the weather when they ran into him. They had no idea this soul was someone who had been brought to tears by snowfall as a child.

In fact his whole miserable life was one of complete obscurity. Based on the startling artworks (some 300 paintings found in his apartment), a disturbing portrait emerged among critics of Darger as a sexually frustrated lunatic with a vague grasp of children’s anatomy and an insatiable blood-lust. Now we have a full scale biography, meticulously researched and imaginatively reconstructed by Jim Elledge to put Darger's art in a whole new light. Fortunately Elledge is a writer with a grasp of history, particularly the little-known history of gays in the late nineteenth century, and his discourse is free of terms like "discourse" -- not to mention "reification" or "structuralism."

In “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863), Charles Baudelaire posited that “genius is nothing more or less than childhood recovered at will.” Many artists use memory and reflection, remembrances of things past, as the inspiration for their work. But the innocence and curiosity of childhood are lost as we grow up. Like Balthus, Darger got stuck in adolescence, and the key to Darger is his childhood. So Elledge takes us back to the sordid corner of West Madison Street, Chicago, where Henry Darger Junior was created. His parents were German immigrants scrabbling to raise themselves up to a better life in the new world. Darger’s father was a tailor but, unlike his hard-working brothers who rose out of poverty, Darger’s father was a drunkard, and after the death of his wife in childbirth he became more dissolute and lived with the boy in a run-down shack. Young Henry was raised on the streets. He lied, stole and fought and showed a taste for pyromania.

Various Catholic do-gooders attempted to give him some education but he resisted, slashing one teacher with a knife, and ended up running with gangs of boys who would entice and then roll homosexuals. In school he acted out so much (speaking in voices) the other kids nicknamed him “Crazy.” Older boys and men would protect young Henry, who was small for his age, in return for sexual favors. It was the only route he knew to money and food. We know he was sexually promiscuous because among other things he was locked up at age 12 for excessive and sometimes public masturbation.

Fifty years from now Americans will marvel at the ludicrousness and expense we incurred to imprison people for possessing marijuana. Pot smoking is not a social evil, incarceration is. A century ago the insane asylums were full of people who had syphilis or were habitual masturbators. Spilling your vital seed, your “precious bodily fluids,” as fans of Dr Strangelove know, is a fatal weakness. But recognized authorities like Dr Kellogg (father of the flakes) expounded about the effeminacy that resulted from excessive wanking. In those days a man or boy who jerked off was considered to be temporarily transformed into a girl while his body regenerated his manly essence. Homosexuals were only of one type: men who dressed as women, wore makeup and had floral names, like Daisy or Violet. Machos who liked punking other men or boys were considered normal heteros with a taste for variety. Society thought the evils of masturbation and homosexuality were so great that the only sure cure was castration.

At Jennie Richee, n.d. (detail)

In Elledge's view, the little girls with penises, familiar from Darger’s massive paintings, are not hermaphrodites or freaks — or the product of his ignorance of female anatomy — they are emasculated boys.

Henry failed at schoolwork. If he received any money from his aunt he would be punished as a thief. If he told on the others they would extract sadistic revenge. He did have an interest in history, particularly the American Civil War which had ended three decades earlier. When a teacher mentioned that so many thousand men had died at some battle, Henry said that he had read three different figures in three different books therefore could not agree with the teacher’s estimate. Punished for being a wise guy, he soon shut up. Tales of life in the dark corridors of the Mission of Our Lady of Mercy reminded me of Papillon on Devil’s Island, without the tattoos and shrunken heads, but still pretty vicious. But the “vice, degeneracy and abnormal behavior” exhibited by Henry meant the Catholics couldn’t control him and asked his father to remove him.

At this point the father, turning down an incredibly generous offer from one of the matrons to adopt the lad, handed him over to the State Insane Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children, 150 miles away on the prairie where he could forget about him. He was enrolled, unartfully, as Henry Dodger (later amended to Dagett). Henry thought the food was good and plenty, and he wolfed down heapings of breakfast oatmeal. Interestingly the asylum fodder was considered wormy oatmeal, wormy prunes and rotten meat, which suggests that the food in the Catholic home had been worse!

Untitled, pencil & watercolor, n.d., (detail)

The children were beaten with boards, raped and punished in many sadistic ways. One of the guards’ tricks was strangulation with a towel, which didn’t leave marks, until the child’s tongue lolled and they passed out. Deaths from castrations gone wrong led to an inquiry and the newspapers reported the sordid details: a 1907 investigative committee was shocked at the seeming callousness of the hospital staff. The committee reported that there were many problems that needed attention, in particular, although it was called The Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children, there were many children of normal intelligence there as well as many adults (transferred from overcrowded prisons) who were left unsupervised after 10 p.m. in the dormitories with the children.

The girls fared as badly as the boys, one was gnawed by rats and lost a finger as well as much of her skin, another died after being put in a scalding hot bath. Her piercing screams were ignored. After Darger’s father’s death he wrote “I was very dangerous if not left alone.” As he entered his teens Henry could no longer face the future in this institution which now consigned him to full days of farm labor. He tried to escape, was captured and roped and led back tied to a horse like a beast. His second attempt was also a failure, but by the time he was 16 he managed to hop a freight and ride back to Chicago. But once there he had no idea what to do but surrender to police who sent him back to the city nuthouse where he had been locked up as a 6 year old. After a month he was returned to the Asylum but fled again, this time going South where he worked for a farmer for a few days and then set off to walk the 160 miles back to Chicago. After a five year absence, he showed up on his aunt’s doorstep and told her he had been cured of his insanity and discharged.

At Norma Catherine. Are captured again by Glandelinian Cavalry

His relatives didn’t know what to do with him, but all he wanted from them was to know what had happened to the baby sister who had been given up for adoption. This was the central puzzle of his life. He couldn’t believe her lot had been as bad as his. His godmother didn’t exactly welcome him with open arms, but called on an old acquaintance, a nun who worked at St Joseph’s Hospital, and managed to get Henry hired as a janitor. However, the nurses and nuns all knew he had been in the asylum and gave him a wide berth and any time they thought he needed a reality check they threatened to send him back. He worked long hours in return for a room and board. 

But then in 1911 his life changed. Darger met an older man, "Whillie" Schloeder, and the two had a friendship that lasted until Schloeder’s death in 1959. They were photographed together thrice and all indications are that they were a couple. With some stability now in his life Henry began writing and illustrating his novel in the style of a children's book, In the Realms of the Unreal. Endless and unreadable, it occupied him for the rest of his life.

Michael Bonesteel published excerpts in his book on Darger and now Elledge has gone further to identify sources and point out the parallels to Darger’s own life in the story of the seven Vivian girls and the war between good and evil. The Vivian girls are fairies in both senses of the word: girls in spirit trapped in boys' bodies, as well as beings from an unearthly realm. There are numerous clues to Henry as Marie, one of the characters, and also the fact that he notes that the real author is Annie Aronburg, another alter-ego. He copied out important personal documents into his notebooks but always changed his own name to Annie Aronburg. Later he used pseudonyms, including Dargarius, claiming he was born in Brazil, and as proof would sing a children's marching song in Portuguese.

It was the abduction, rape and strangulation of a 5-year-old child named Elsie Paroubek that set Henry off. As a janitor he would find all the day's papers discarded in the hospital waiting rooms and could follow the drama which unfolded for a month before the child's corpse was found in a canal. There had been a monumental hunt for the girl, including pursuit of an Italian organ grinder and the belief that she had been kidnapped by gypsies and forced to beg. Another little girl, Lillian Wulff, who had escaped from gypsies showed remarkable strength of character and advised the police. But in the end the murderer was never apprehended.

Henry empathized with the tiny victim because it was the kind of abuse he had put up with all through his childhood. Although Henry had escaped with his life, he "understood her fear, her wanting to be back with her family, and what it meant to be raped and strangled. She became an emblem to him of his own abuse." He was moved to begin writing In the Realms of the Unreal. The illustrations were based on popular sources, Saturday Evening Post, the Sunday funnies etc, but were subsumed by Darger into his own fantasy and took on the sinister qualities of torture and disembowelment found in Japanese guro manga today.

A second novel, Further Adventures in Chicago: Crazy House, is even more autobiographical, as Elledge points out, interweaving stories from Darger's life with fiction based on his library as well as his established cast of characters (Penrod -- a readymade boy hero from Booth Tarkington -- and the Vivian girls), but this time set in Chicago, rather than a fantasyland. The hero, Webber George, is badly behaved and mad at God for not making him a girl. (The surname George is common among the Romany or gypsy families but Elledge doesn't pursue this.) Many of Webber's escapades are drawn directly from Darger's autobiography and he himself enters the narrative to say, "the writer knows quite a number of boys who would give anything to have been born a girl."

Creative activity quelled his pent-up rage and inner torment, since "God had made his life a rosary of miseries and tragedy." A third work, promisingly titled The History of My Life, written in his seventies, derails into an apocalyptic revenge tale of a tornado (appropriated from Oz, though Darger had witnessed the devastation of a tornado personally) named Sweetie Pie that wreaks havoc on the Midwest, destroying all those places where Darger had suffered.

We now have several coffee-table books reproducing the remarkable art of Henry Darger and this biography fills in the sad details behind the work: his life of pain and despair, religious anguish and daily misery. (As an aside, all of the works of Darger are marked © Kiyoko Lerner, but this would never stand up in court. Apart from the fact he has living relatives, most of the work is not registered with the copyright office and she could not prove legal entitlement [See U.S. Copyright Law, Involuntary Transfer of Ownership, Section §201 (e)].)

What remains? We know he had a cupboard full of books including all of L. Frank Baum, some Dickens, books about the Great Fire of Chicago, and a mass of ephemera, pictures clipped from magazines to be traced and collaged into his art, which he pasted into old phone books. He also had a collection of 78 rpm records that he played into the night while he worked: Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Chopin. Darger would be astounded at this interest in his life. (Even the little victim "Elsie Paroubek" brings up 65,000 Google search results.)

Acres of manuscript remain for the doctoral thesis machine to pick over before we wring all the sentimentality out of one of the saddest lives ever saved from the rubbish dump and held up for our contemplation.

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