Henry Joseph Darger, Jr. (/ˈdɑːrɡər/; c. April 12, 1892 – April 13, 1973) was a reclusive American writer and artist who worked as a hospital custodian 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-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, along with several hundred drawings and watercolor paintings illustrating the story.
The visual subject matter of his work ranges from idyllic scenes in Edwardian interiors and tranquil flowered landscapes populated by children and fantastic creatures, to scenes of horrific terror and carnage depicting young children being tortured and massacred. Much of his artwork is mixed media with collage elements. Darger's artwork has become one of the most celebrated examples of outsider art.
Darger was born in Chicago, Illinois, to Henry Darger Sr. and Rosa Fullman. Cook County records show he was born at home, located at 350 W. 24th Street. When he was four years old, his mother died of puerperal fever after giving birth to a daughter, who was given up for adoption; Darger never knew his sister. One of his biographers, 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 account, his father was kind and reassuring to him and they lived together until 1900. In that year, the crippled and impoverished Darger Sr. was taken to St. Augustine's Home for the Aged. Because of his apparent intellect, the young Darger was initially enrolled in public school at the third grade level; after his father became crippled, Darger was moved to the Mission of Our Lady of Mercy, a Catholic orphanage. Darger Sr. died in 1905, and his son was institutionalized in the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln, Illinois, also called the Lincoln State School (today the Lincoln Developmental Center), 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," a euphemism for masturbation.
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) which irritated others. The Lincoln asylum's practices included forced labor and severe punishments, which Darger would later seemingly incorporate into his writing. Darger later said that, to be fair, there were also good times at the asylum, he enjoyed some of the work, and he had friends as well as enemies. While he was there, Darger received word that his father had died. A series of attempted escapes ended successfully in 1908. 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.
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