September 2013

Danielle Sherrod


Henry Darger, Throw Away Boy: The Tragic Life of an Outsider Artist by Jim Elledge

Once upon a time, there was a tribe of children, known only as the Vivian Girls. These children, the seven princesses of the Christian nation of Abbieannia, were not to be held captive to anyone, no, only to fight against the turning tides of child slavery within their land. Their trials and tribulations were phantasmic versions of the Iliad or The Odyssey, if such adventures were rendered in collages and watercolors. Theirs was a bravery defined by being strange gendered little girls who saw no need to be clothed, for what good are clothes in the face of Glandelinian overlords, the Blengigomeneans, and the other ills that may befall the most vulnerable of Abbieannia.

There were those who wanted to harm the children in this realm, mostly the Glandelinian overlords and John Manley. They were intent on crucifying, strangling, even sexually abusing these children. This was to be expected, because it was so obvious that they were evil, for why else would they be condemning these children to slavery? But outside this self-contained world, there were those who thought the Vivian Girls were the product of perversion and pedophilia, of a sick, twisted mind. There were those who were frightened, scared, or threatened by strange, gendered, naked children, those who thought these Vivian Girls represented the inner workings of a mentally ill, sadistic hermit, who if given the chance, who wanted to do the things he depicted in the fifteen volume, 15,145 page work, known as In the Realms of the Unreal. This would all be the ultimate fairy tale, except, it is more than just a fairy tale. It is the posthumous evidence that Henry Darger, one of America's most well known folk artists, was here, all the more outstanding since all of these pages and battles of the Vivian Girls were almost thrown away.

Enter Henry Darger, Throw Away Boy: The Tragic Life of an Outsider Artist, Jim Elledge's tribute to, or really, clarification, of who Darger really was, and why haunting images like the Vivian Girls came into our own reality. Darger, now one of the most famous folk artists in American history, was relegated to the sidelines for all of his life, partly because Darger himself was a quiet man, more so because he was a man who experienced the worst of society's failures over and over. He was a man who kept to himself, went to his manual labor job every day, and was often ridiculed for his inability to fit into "proper" society. He was also a man who created a fantasyland of extraordinary proportions, who transcribed personal pains into narrative, and who held a serious relationship for almost fifty years.

Elledge seeks to destroy the mythologies that have haunted Darger and his work, giving a radical new view that is equal parts empathetic and explanatory. As a society, we have a fetish for troubled artists, often romanticizing the all too real aspects of poverty, mental illness, and the costs of existing on the frays of society. It is equal parts na´vetÚ and popular opinion, one that comes all too easily in death, an aggrandizing view that takes away the trauma of the actual lived life and co-opts what it means to be an artist. "I initially heard about Darger from a friend who'd just seen an exhibit of his work at the American Folk Art Museum," wrote Elledge over e-mail. "I read articles about him before I went. Most believed he was a sadist, child killer, or pedophile because of the way he often depicted children. When I saw the paintings at that exhibit, I realized that the myth surrounding him was wrong and that there was an alternative interpretation to those horrific scenes, and I set out to find it." It is a mission that Elledge fulfills intensely, not only uncovering the troubling history of Darger's early life and the many abuses that he experienced as a young child, but also of early American gay subculture. Darger's place in queer history is carved by his polarizing experiences: his childhood on the fringes of society, and his forty-eight year relationship with another man, know affectionately as Whillie, as well as the many spaces in between the two, pondering often what it meant to be a man of the "female occupation."

It is this idea of the female occupation in the male body that the Vivian Girls are born of and what Elledge comes to describe as Imitation Girls. This is how Darger pictured his own idea of being a gay man, a theory that was popularized in the nineteenth century when Darger was still a small child, when being gay meant you were not "a man." Gay men were "God created women, with masculine genitals": female souls enclosed in male bodies. The Vivian Girls, captured in their own bodies, become symbols of Darger's sexuality. His Vivian Girls are not really girls at all, but fairies, pansies: queers. They are small boys with the spirits of girls, doing whatever they can to flee the abuses of the larger, more powerful world around them. It is the undoing of the child molester, little naked girl myth. One begins to see that Darger not only had something immensely powerful to get onto paper, but that art is a way of interpreting life, and often not the other way around.

While Elledge breaks down the many classifications by which Darger has come to be described, he maintains fervently that rape victim is not one of them. Rape, until very recently, has been a crime against women only. Men were not and could not be raped in Darger's time. And yet they were, a fact the young Darger knew all to well, as he was often the target of larger boys in the many troubled children's homes he lived in. These institutions where Darger lived in the first years of the 20th century were destructive. Boys who displayed homosexual tendencies or self-abused (the famed Kellogg's term for masturbation) were sent to these group homes and often forgotten. Henry would later call these places "the house[s] of a thousand troubles," not only for the nameless rape that was rampant, but also for the blind eye that those in power often turned. (And often enough those in power were participating in the abuse themselves.) It did not help that the culture around him was already unsympathetic to girls and women. It could even begin to be bothered by the vulnerabilities of young boys, who were known as "lambs" to the larger men, the wolves that preyed. It is not shocking that the Vivian Girls become a metaphor for how Darger feels about his own sexuality. They also become a means to understand the abuses that have happened to him and to seek justice for them. For if not in the real world, then why not in one of your own invention?

One might ask why Elledge has gone to such lengths to write a defense of Darger, to unpack the history and give Darger a posthumous defense. Why now?

"I was tired of reading the unfounded accusations about Darger," Elledge wrote to me. "I hope that readers will not simply come away from the book with a different view of who Darger was, but also with an appreciation of what he did in order to create his work. People don't realize that he was a novelist and that the paintings for which he's become famous were illustrations for his novels and not separate entities per se. He worked up to ten-hour shifts six or seven days a week for most of his life, and yet despite having so little free time, he wrote three books totaling about 35,000 handwritten pages and painted over 300 canvases -- all because he had a story to tell. He wasn't trained to write novels or to paint. His dedication to his art -- what some have called an obsession -- is extremely important to Darger's story, and I hope that's a takeaway."

Darger was an artist, one whose posthumous reputation soared after years of creating in silence. He was a working class janitor and yet also a man who was able to create one the most recognizable works of outsider art to date. He was a survivor of sexual violence and institutional abuse, a socially awkward kid who suffered in an asylum in a time when masturbating was considered a mental illness. He was a loner and a lover, a man equally devoted to being alone and to loving his partner and the hope that one day he might be able to adopt a wayward child. He was a man who needed to bring his world to life. His legacy has been wrapped in mythology and hype, destructive rumor and sadistic praise. In the world of overwrought biographies that love the tragic artist mythology and the profit-based art-world hype machine, Elledge's book is the closest you might come to getting at the actual truth of the artist.

Henry Darger, Throw Away Boy: The Tragic Life of an Outsider Artist by Jim Elledge
ISBN: 978-1590208557
384 pages