HENRI DARGER (1892-1973, CHICAGO, USA)
“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”, or 15.000 pages discovered by chance by Nathan Lerner, the owners of a Chicago room where a lonely man spent part of his life.
Henry Darger was born in April 1892 at 350 W. 24th Street, in Cook Country, where Chicago it’s located.
When he was four, his mother died of puerperal fever after giving birth to a daughter, who was given up for adoption; Henry Darger never knew his sister.
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 Catholic Mission home and his son placed in a Catholic boys’ home.
Darger Sr. died in 1905, and his son was institutionalized in the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children 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,” a euphemism for masturbation. The Lincoln asylum’s practices included forced labor and severe punishments, which Darger would later seemingly incorporate into his writing.
When he was 17, and still living at the asylum, his father died, precipitating a number of attempts to run away from the institution between 1908 and 1909. On his first attempt, he was caught and returned. His second attempt resulted in him giving himself up to the police and returning again. His third and final try was successful and he arrived at his godmother’s residence in Chicago some time afterward.
Darger had a couple of boyhood chums when he was at the asylum, but as an adult he had only one true friend: a Luxembourg immigrant by the name of William Schloeder. Darger and Schloeder would go together to the Riverview amusement park at Belmont and Western Avenues. When Schloeder relocated to Texas and died shortly thereafter, in 1959, Darger took it very hard.
In 1917, Darger was drafted into the army and sent to Camp Logan, Texas. It was not a situation he was comfortable with and was honorably discharged a short time later for eye trouble. The only military actions he was truly interested in pursuing were the ones in his imagination. He had been fascinated with the American Civil War since his early youth used it as a model of sorts for his Realms saga, as well as bringing in many aspects of World War I, which was being waged during the first years he was writing his novel.
In 1922 Darger left his residence at St. Joseph Hospital and was hired as a dishwasher at the Grant Hospital. In 1930 Darger moved to a room on the second floor of a building in Chicago.
Darger had other unusual habits. He attended Catholic mass three or four times a day at St. Vincent DePaul Church; he avoided talking to people; his room was piled knee-deep in old discarded honey containers and Pepto-Bismol bottles, as well as materials that he foraged from trash-hunts through the back alleys of Chicago: old bundled-up newspapers and magazines, which he read voraciously, balls of twine, and numerous pairs of broken eye glasses. He kept a large stash of bricks under his mattress, presumably in case he was attacked. Leg pains forced him to leave his job and retire in 1963. It was at some point after this that he began writing The History of My Life. After documenting his memories for some 200 pages, he then launched into a fictitious story about a tornado named “Sweetie Pie” that occupied the remaining 5,000 pages.
Darger was struck by automobile in 1969 and suffered an injury to his left leg and hip. This, in addition to previous problems with his legs, made it even more difficult for him to climb the stairs.
In 1972, he asked his new landlord, Nathan Lerner, to arrange for him to move to a nursing home, since he could no longer negotiate the stairs. He was admitted late that year to the St. Augustine’s Home, the same nursing home in which his father passed away.
Shortly after Darger moved out, Lerner asked one of his tenants, David Berglund, to help clear out Darger’s belongings from the room he had occupied. After hauling away two truckloads of trash, Berglund came upon Darger’s artwork and writings. He told Lerner — an artist himself who immediately recognized its importance — and as they began to examine it, their awe and amazement grew.
Darger had been keeping a diary of day-to-day activities from March 28, 1968 through Jan. 1, 1972. The last page of his diary is dated a little over a year before he died. When Berglund visited Darger at the nursing home shortly before his death and mentioned the discovery of his artwork, Darger was jolted out of his reverie long enough to say, “Too late now.”
Darger died the day after his 81st birthday in 1973.
In the Realms of the Unreal is a 15,145-page work bound in fifteen immense, densely typed volumes created over six decades. Darger illustrated his stories using a technique of traced images cut from magazines and catalogues, arranged in large panoramic landscapes and painted in watercolours, some as large as 30 feet wide and painted on both sides. He wrote himself into the narrative as the children’s protector. The large part of the book,” 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”, follows the adventures of the daughters of Robert Vivian, seven princesses of the Christian nation of Abbieannia who assist a daring rebellion against the child slavery imposed by John Manley and the Glandelinians. Children take up arms in their own defense and are often slain in battle or viciously tortured by the Glandelinian overlords. The elaborate mythology includes the setting of a large planet, around which Earth orbits as a moon (where most people are Christian and mostly Catholic), and a species called the “Blengigomeneans”, gigantic winged beings with curved horns who occasionally take human or part-human form, even disguising themselves as children. They are usually benevolent, but some Blengins are extremely suspicious of all humans, due to Glandelinian atrocities.