The breathtaking, disturbing, monumental artwork and writings of Henry Darger (1892-1973), a previously unknown and reclusive Chicago hospital janitor, were found shortly after he moved out of his apartment and into a nursing home. The works detail a complex fantasy world filled with idyllic beauty and hellish violence. He died within months of their discovery, and the only clues to their creation lie within the unpublished pages of two long-winded novels, an autobiography and several other journals and manuscripts that he left behind. Today, Darger is considered arguably the greatest self-taught artist in America.
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About 30 years ago, while discussing the hermaphroditic children in Darger's artwork, an openly gay Chicago art critic, Dennis Adrian, said to me: "What's the big mystery? Those aren't little girls with penises; they're little boys dressed up as little girls." I didn't take the idea very seriously at the time, but now, to judge from Jim Elledge's new biography, "Henry Darger, Throwaway Boy: The Tragic Life of an Outsider Artist," the time has come for that idea to be treated very seriously indeed.
Elledge, an author and editor who has published numerous titles in the field of queer culture, goes further than that. He makes the claim, supported by meticulous research conducted over 10 years, that not only was Darger gay, but that his good friend, William Schloeder, was his "life partner" and that they tried to adopt a child together. Once Elledge presents all of the evidence, his hypothesis does seem brilliantly persuasive — amounting to a veritable bombshell in the annals of Darger scholarship — challenging long-held notions about Darger's personal life and explaining many unanswered questions about his art.
A number of opinions have been advanced regarding Darger's psychological state, including Asperger's syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, gender confusion, obsessive-compulsive disorder and hypergraphia (the overwhelming urge to write). The hypothesis of homosexuality — clearly no longer considered a mental disorder — that Elledge puts forth in his biography is one of the most significant and important contributions to date.
Point by point, here is how he builds his case. Darger grew up at 165 W. Adams St., not far from one of Chicago's most notorious vice districts, which in the late 19th century was rife with male prostitutes. Darger wrote in "The History of My Life" about befriending a "night watchman" at age 8, and Elledge guesses that this relationship was probably sexual. When he was 12, Darger was institutionalized at the Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln, Ill., because of excessive "self-abuse." Elledge notes that during the first decade of the 20th century, doctors viewed masturbation as an indicator of homosexuality.
As an adult, Darger had his picture taken with Schloeder on three separate occasions, always sitting side-by-side in the back of the same faux-caboose train scene constructed in the Coultry Studio at Chicago's Riverview Park. Elledge suggests that this "honeymoon caboose" scene was usually reserved for heterosexual couples. In his writings, Darger refers to Schloeder as his "special friend," a term that was code for "gay lover," according to Elledge. Other words Darger used to describe certain people, such as "queer" and "fairy," are also slang for homosexuals.
Darger's awareness of homosexuality is almost certain because he owned a book, "Condemned to Devil's Island," that portrays gay sexual relationships. In Darger's novels, men and women often cross-dress. In his artwork, children are depicted as hermaphrodites. Elledge states that effeminate gay men were called "psychic hermaphrodites" by doctors in the early 20th century.
Perhaps one of the most telling arguments is Elledge's mention of a scene in Darger's "Further Adventures in Chicago: Crazy House," in which Darger describes how one of his male characters wishes he had been born female and comments that he, Darger, "knows quite a number of boys who would give anything to have been born a girl."
As compelling as Elledge's argument is, however, it rests entirely on circumstantial evidence, ambiguous language and innuendo. He offers no indisputable proof that Darger was gay. To muddy the waters further, he extrapolates from facts to create biographical re-enactments that are pure fiction. For example: Darger "began to investigate how he and Whillie could adopt a child. … Henry approached the priests at St. Vincent's Church to ask what he had to do to adopt a child. He wouldn't have mentioned Whillie to them because of the Church's homophobia."
It is true that Darger, a devout Catholic, proposed to the church fathers that he adopt a child, but in the 30 years I have been examining Darger's writings, I have never seen anything Darger wrote that mentioned Schloeder in connection with this. However, in an attempt to dramatize his theory, Elledge paints Darger and Schloeder's close personal friendship as a romantic relationship, calling them "life partners" and portraying the desire to adopt a child as one shared by both men. It is an interesting interpretation, but it is not based upon any known facts.
In addition to leaving the reader with the mistaken impression that the scenarios really happened, these literary reconstructions tend to call into question the rest of Elledge's more fact-based documentation. This has already had the unfortunate result of biasing subsequent scholarship, such as that by author Michael Moon in "Darger's Resources," who (apparently after reading an early draft of Elledge's book) states flat-out that "Darger and Schloeder were not going to be allowed to adopt a child" as if it were an actual historic incident and not a dramatic conjecture.
Having said all this, I still find Elledge's basic ideas more productive and less offensive than some of those previously issued by premiere Darger scholar John MacGregor, who infamously wrote in a few places that Darger "had a potential for mass murder" — an opinion based largely upon the actions of fictional characters in Darger's 15,000-page magnum opus, "In the Realms of the Unreal." We usually don't consider the violence that may take place in fiction as a reflection of how the author conducts his or her personal life. I doubt that many people have accused Mickey Spillane of being a homicidal killer or Vladimir Nabokov of being a closet pedophile, although, with the latter, the issue has been raised, probably because of the transgressive nature of Lolita's protagonist. Similarly, when Darger's oeuvre first emerged, one of the first things to be addressed was whether or not he was a murdering child-molester. Initially, many people simply assumed the worst. But most Darger scholars today, including Elledge in his new biography, have dismissed such notions.
Elledge's suppositions regarding Darger's possible homosexuality, and how it added to the persecution he felt because of his unhappy life, cannot be dismissed quite so easily. Despite the author's sometimes misleading mix of fact and fiction, "Throwaway Boy" deserves a prominent place among the ongoing attempts to unravel the mysteries that lie behind the epic art and writings of Henry Darger.
Michael Bonesteel is a Chicago writer, the author of "Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings" and the forthcoming "Henry Darger's Story of the Vivian Girls in the Realms of the Unreal, Book One: The Child Slave Rebellion."
"Henry Darger, Throwaway Boy: The Tragic Life of an Outsider Artist"
By Jim Elledge, Overlook, 384 pages, $29.95Copyright © 2015, RedEye