Q & A with Jim Elledge, Author of Henry Darger, Throwaway Boy: The Tragic Life of an Outsider Artist
A summary from the jacket copy: “Utterly unknown during his lifetime, Henry Darger led a quiet, secluded existence as a janitor on Chicago's North Side. When he died, his landlord discovered a treasure trove of more than three hundred canvases and more than 30,000 manuscript pages depicting a rich, shocking fantasy world—many featuring hermaphroditic children being eviscerated, crucified, and strangled.
“While some art historians tend to dismiss Darger as possibly psychotic, Jim Elledge cuts through the cloud of controversy and rediscovers Darger as a damaged and fearful gay man, raised in a world unaware of the consequences of child abuse or gay shame. This thoughtful, sympathetic biography tells the true story of a tragically misunderstood artist. Drawn from fascinating histories of the vice-ridden districts of 1900s Chicago, tens of thousands of pages of primary source material, and Elledge's own work in queer history, Henry Darger, Throwaway Boy also features a full-color reproduction of a never-before-seen canvas from a private gallery in New York, as well as a previously undiscovered photograph of Darger with his lifelong companion William Schloeder, or "Whillie" as Henry affectionately referred to him.”
What initially interested you in Darger's story?
I went to an exhibit of Darger’s paintings in April 2002 and was captivated by an image that appears over and over in his work: the “little girl with a penis,” as it’s been called. Sometimes Darger placed the figure in an Edenic setting, but often the figure is being tortured—strangled, eviscerated, crucified—by male adults in a forest or a battlefield. The figure of the tortured child had caused writers before me to believe that Darger was a sadist, serial killer, and/or pedophile. I don’t know why they came to that conclusion, but I didn’t buy it for a second, and I set out to discover what the figure actually meant.
How did you go about gathering information and organizing the narrative in a coherent manner? (It's so narratively adept and reads like a novel).
My research took ten years, mostly in the Darger Archive at the Museum for American Folk Art in Manhattan, the University of Chicago’s special collections, and the archives of the Chicago History Museum. The last couple of years of that decade I spent writing the book, but I was doing research right up to the moment I sent the manuscript to my editor. I became pretty much a Google expert during that period, too. Luckily, I’m very organized, and so, with the help of my trusty laptop, keeping track of medical articles from the 1800s and census records from the 1920s, for example, was relatively easy. For the narrative, I just followed the chronology of Darger’s life, a very typical structure for a biography, except for the opening chapter. I wanted to open the book with the most important event in Darger’s life, and that, I believe, was the day his father and a local doctor filled out an application that allowed them to send Darger, a twelve-year-old, to the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children. In those days—this would have been in 1904—children could be confined in an institution for being truant, for talking back to parents, and in Darger’s case, for masturbating. Darger wasn’t even there when his father signed the application and changed his son’s life irrevocably.