Q and A with Jim Elledge, HENRY DARGER: THROWAWAY BOY
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.
Were there any biographies or other books that inspired you and/or served as models for Henry Darger, Throwaway Boy?
During the early stages of my research, I realized I knew nothing about Chicago during the period of Darger’s childhood (He was born in 1892.) So I began looking for books that would give me a good impression of what everyday life in Chicago was like then. Someone recommended Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City. I thought it was a novel, but about halfway through, I discovered it’s a wonderfully-written history of the first American serial killer who was active during the Chicago World’s Fair (1882-83). I decided that I wanted my book to be as informative as his and as enjoyable a read. It became my model. I’ve read it three or four times.
How have art historians and artists responded to Henry Darger, Throwaway Boy?
A few have been very positive, but many are very conservative and have taken offense over my discovery and report that Darger was gay. Interestingly, they never once argued against the early claims that he was a pedophile or sadist or serial killer. So they seem to be OK with his being one of those, but they’re not at all OK that he was gay. Strange, I think, especially because the art world in general is full of gay men and women—curators, art historians, gallery owners, artists themselves. Darger gives lots of clues in his second novel about his gay experiences and his awareness of Chicago’s gay subculture, but most who criticize my discovery haven’t read it.
What was the most interesting detail that you came across when you were researching Darger's life?
Everyone who wrote about him before I began my book described him as a friendless hermit, and that’s what I expected to find. But I discovered just the opposite. He had friends and acquaintances. He mentions them in his autobiography and elsewhere. He wrote letters to them and they replied. A few of the letters and postcards they wrote to him are available for anyone to read in the Darger Archive. He had a relationship with a man, William Schloeder, whom he met when he was 19 and called “Whilly.” (Whilly appears as a character in two of Darger’s three novels.) Their relationship extended from the 1910s to the 1950s. Given the homophobia of the time, they never lived together. Whillie lived with his family and Darger lived alone. But they spent a great deal of time with Whilly’s family, and Darger virtually became a member of it. I was extremely happy to discover that Darger had people around him who loved and cared for him, that he wasn’t a misanthrope as everyone had declared.
Please tell us what you're working on now.
I’m always involved with several projects at once. It’s just the way I work. Right now, I’m working on two books. One is what I think of as a cultural history of gay life in Chicago from 1843 to 1943. The other is a novel set in Chicago during the Roaring Twenties. Its main character is a 17-year-old man who is locked up in an insane asylum by his stepfather because he is gay and refused his stepfather’s sexual advances. I have a new collection of poems, Tapping My Arm for a Vein, coming out from Lethe Press in 2015 and am looking for a publisher for my most-recently finished collection of poems, a “documentary” about the arson of the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar, in New Orleans in 1973, and for a children’s picture book my husband and I co-wrote.