The Outsiders

••• John MacGregor Unlocks Henry Darger's Unreal Realms

 Permit me to be terrified.
—Klee on Van Gogh

What do we want from Henry Darger? Born in Chicago a century and a decade ago this month, the consummate outsider artist and writer is the subject of a monumental new book by his posthumous Boswell and indefatigable champion, John M. MacGregor, and of two exhibits at the American Folk Art Museum, which opened its Henry Darger Study Center this month. Virtually anonymous in his daily life, he has become, in the years since his death in 1973, an index of our fears and ambitions, an alchemist, a litmus test, an urban legend, a cautionary tale. Some records from the Lincoln Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children, where he passed most of his teenage years, give his name as "Henry Dodger"—a fitting slip for this most elusive of culture heroes. The nature of the labyrinthine, practically infinite work he left behind has bred countless misconceptions, and has lent everything in his narrow life—from his career as a dishwasher to his meteorological obsessions—the flavor and inevitability of myth.

Darger lived most of his life on the north side of Chicago, spending his last 31 years at 851 Webster Avenue, in a large third-floor room. The artist Nathan Lerner bought the building in 1956. Lerner was a photographer and educator associated with Moholy-Nagy's New Bauhaus in Chicago, as well as the product designer responsible for the first sponge mop and the honeybear bottle. His enduring legacy, however, has its roots in the kindness he showed toward his aged, reclusive tenant, whose presence some of his younger residents didn't exactly cherish. Lerner (who died in 1997) kept Henry's rent low, even knocking off a quarter of the $40-a-month tab at Henry's suggestion.

John MacGregor has been on every page of Henry Darger's novel. There are 15,145 of them.
photo: John MacGregor
John MacGregor has been on every page of Henry Darger's novel. There are 15,145 of them.

"Henry considered Nathan a guardian, a father," says Lerner's widow, Kiyoko (who holds the copyright to Darger's works). Henry always addressed him as "Mr. Leonard," and Kiyoko thinks that his obsessive Catholicism made him avoid saying the Jewish name. The Lerners once threw him a birthday party, and helped him find a nearby nursing home toward the end of his life, when the trek up the stairs became too much. Yet for all the years he lived under their roof, they never knew of his double life, let alone predict his future fame.

The story used to end—or begin—like this: After Henry died at the nursing home, Lerner and one of the other tenants started to dispose of the contents of his amazingly cluttered apartment, wisely stopping upon discovering hundreds of paintings, beautiful and unspeakably strange, bound in huge books. The scroll-like compositions were unlike anything ever seen before, antic with nightmare weather, enormous flora, and young girls sporting penises. Along with vibrant storybook vistas were scenes of discomfiting (if masterfully orchestrated) violence: Men known as Glandelinians subjected the children to strangulation, blasphemous crucifixion, and anatomically accurate evisceration. Also in the room, packed in trunks, was more than a half-century's worth of writing, including the sub-rosa magnum opus that his artwork illustrated. (At 15,145 pages, 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—or the Realms, for short—is the longest known work of fiction ever written.) Our entry into Darger's private world is a matter of luck, then, and marked with the guilt of trespass.

This is the original sin as I first heard it, more or less, in a lecture MacGregor delivered at the American Psychiatric Association's 1995 conference in Miami; it also appears in numerous articles (a Times headline from '97 ends, "Secret Until Death"), as well as in the first English-language book devoted to Darger (Michael Bonesteel, 2000). But MacGregor's 720-page Henry Darger: In the Realms of the Unreal (Delano Greenidge Editions)—the product of 12 years of research and writing—puts forth a revised standard version. His room was opened, and his oceanic creation uncovered, while Henry was still alive at the home run by the Little Sisters of the Poor; when told about the discovery, he said, "It's too late now."

MacGregor wants to know: Too late for what?

Henry Darger is an improbable, wrist-wrecking page-turner, and John MacGregor is, in a profound sense, a mystery writer. In six books and numerous lectures and articles, the 61-year-old art historian and former psychotherapist has helped define the field of outsider art—a province that sometimes seems overrun by backwater visionaries and Magic Marker graphomaniacs. But in choosing his subjects, MacGregor leaves the freak show behind and articulates the mystery of what such creations might mean to their creators. He has noted that "factors other than the purely aesthetic must be involved if I am to write; puzzling questions must emerge from a creative process under extremely unusual circumstances."

Hence his attention to the drafting-board fantasias of Achilles Rizzoli, architectural assistant to God; the incest-laden needlework of an early-20th-century psychiatric patient known as the Lace Maker; and (in Dwight Mackintosh: The Boy Who Time Forgot) the obsessional figurations (and strands of indecipherable cursive) of an autistic septuagenarian. His unpublished monograph The Flowers of Spirit-Land deduces the provenance of a collection of progressively more intense flower paintings that eventually bloom into full-fledged abstract expressionism avant la lettre (1863)—an art-historical cul-de-sac inhabited and abandoned by a Spiritualist in the grip of automatic painting.

Next Page »