Henry Joseph Darger
(April12, 1892 April13, 1973)
was a reclusive American writer and artist who worked as a janitor in Chicago, Illinois. He has become famous for his posthumously discovered 15,145-page, single-spaced fantasy manuscript called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, along with several hundred drawings and watercolor paintings illustrating the story. Darger's work has become one of the most celebrated examples of outsider art.
Darger was born in Chicago, Illinois,
to Rosa Fullman and Henry Joseph Darger, Sr. He is believed to have
been born on April 12, 1892, though his exact date of birth is a
subject of debate. A record exists of his U.S. draft registration card,
filled out on June 2, 1917 during the First World War, which lists his
birth date as April 17, 1892.
Cook County records show that he was born at his home, located at
350 W. 24th Street in Chicago. When he was four years old, his mother
died after having given birth to a daughter, who was given up for adoption;
Henry Darger never knew his sister. Darger's biographer, the art
historian and psychologist John M. MacGregor, discovered that Rosa had
two children before Henry, but did not discover their whereabouts.
By Darger's own report, his father, Henry Sr., was kind and
reassuring to him, and they lived together until 1900. In that year,
the crippled and impoverished Darger Sr. had to be taken to live at St.
Augustine's Catholic Mission home and his son was placed in a Catholic
boys' home. Darger Sr. died in 1905, and his son was institutionalized
in Lincoln, Illinois,
with the diagnosis, according to Stephen Prokopoff, that "Little
Henry's heart is not in the right place." According to John MacGregor,
the diagnosis was actually "self-abuse" (at the time, this term was a euphemism for masturbation, rather than self-injury).
Darger himself felt that much of his problem was being able to see through adult lies and becoming a smart-aleck
as a result, which often led to his being disciplined by teachers and
ganged up on by classmates. He also went through a lengthy phase of
feeling compelled to make strange noises (perhaps as a result of Tourette Syndrome, or Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder),
which irritated others. The Lincoln asylum's practices included forced
labor and severe punishments, which Darger seems to have worked into In the Realms of the Unreal.
He later said that, to be fair, there were also good times there, he
enjoyed some of the work, and he had friends as well as enemies. While
he was there, he received word that his father had died. A series of
attempted escapes ended successfully in 1908. According to his
autobiography, he walked back to Chicago from the asylum for
"feeble-minded children" in Lincoln, and it was on this journey that he
witnessed a huge tornado
that devastated the central Illinois area. He described it as "a wind
convulsion of nature tremendous beyond all man's conception". There was a tornado that hit the eastern edge of Tampico, Illinois,
on November 25, 1908, at 7 p.m. Many barns, windmills and out buildings
were turned over, smashed and demolished. Dwellings suffered a small
amount of damage. No one was injured and no livestock killed.
Tampico is located about 40 miles east-northeast of Moline and
approximately 110 miles west of Chicago and 125 miles due north of
The 16-year-old returned to Chicago and, with the help of his
godmother, found menial employment in a Catholic hospital and in this
fashion continued to support himself until his retirement in 1963.
Except for a brief stint in the U.S. Army during World War I, his life took on a pattern that seems to have varied little: he attended Mass daily,
frequently returning for as many as five services; he collected and
saved a bewildering array of trash from the streets. His dress was
shabby, although he attempted to keep his clothes clean and mended. He
was largely solitary; his one close friend, William Shloder, was of
like mind on the subject of protecting abused and neglected children,
and the pair proposed founding a "Children's Protective Society," which
would put such children up for adoption to loving families. Shloder
left Chicago sometime in the mid-1930s, but he and Darger stayed in
touch through letters until Shloder's death in 1959.
In 1930, Darger settled into a second-floor room on Chicago's North Side, at 851 W. Webster Avenue, in the Lincoln Park section of the city, near the DePaul University
campus. It was in this room, more than 40 years later, after his death
in 1973, that Darger's extraordinary secret life was discovered.
Darger's landlords, Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner, came across his work
shortly before his death, a day after his birthday, on April 13, 1973. Nathan Lerner, an accomplished photographer whose long career the New York Times wrote "was inextricably bound up in the history of visual culture in Chicago",
recognized immediately the artistic merit of Darger's work. By this
time Darger was in the Catholic mission St. Augustine's, operated by
the Little Sisters of the Poor, where his father had died.
The Lerners took charge of the Darger estate, publicizing his work and contributing to projects such as the 2004 documentary In the Realms of the Unreal. In cooperation with Kiyoko Lerner, Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art dedicated the Henry Darger Room Collection
in 2008 as part of its permanent collection. Darger has become
internationally recognized thanks to the efforts of people who knew to
save his works. After Nathan Lerner's death in 1997, Kiyoko Lerner
became the sole figure in charge of both her husband and Darger's
estates. The U.S. copyright representative for Estate of Henry Darger
and the Estate of Nathan Lerner is the Artists Rights Society.
Darger is buried in All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines, Illinois,
in a plot called "The Old People of the Little Sisters of the Poor
Plot." Darger's headstone is inscribed "Artist" and "Protector of