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 Timesheadline 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-Landdeduces 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.

None of these cases, though, is as vast, as saturated with wonder—and as prone to public hostility—as the life and work of Henry Darger. "I have been so fortunate to study him in peace and quiet," the media-averse MacGregor tells me, "away from the frenzy that is now developing around him—actually sitting in his room getting to know this man who no one ever knew."

The path to that room began in Montreal, where MacGregor was, born. His father worked for the railroads as a welder; his mother was a secretary for the United Church of Canada. An only child, the young MacGregor developed an intense interest in painting, setting up his own studio at 13, and still has that muscle memory when he looks at what's on the canvases at the museum, a sense of how the brush must have moved.

He entered analysis at 18, abandoning painting around the same time; later, he completed a training analysis and did research stints at such venerable psychiatric institutions as Topeka's Menninger Foundation and the Hampstead Clinic in London, where he knew Anna Freud. (He recently began his third tour through all of her father's collected works—an activity, he jokes, that he performs every 20 years.) After studying art history at McGill, MacGregor went on to Princeton, where he initially kept under wraps his curiosity about the juncture of psychiatry and art. But his adviser—the legendary Chinese-art scholar Wen C. Fong—convinced him otherwise. Though he finished his dissertation, The Discovery of the Art of the Insane, in 1978, over a decade passed before it was published. Despite the lapse, it was hailed as a landmark when it appeared—the first scholarly study of both notorious "mad" artists (like the parricidal Bedlamite Richard Dadd) and public attitudes toward insanity and creativity.

By the time Discoveryappeared, MacGregor had already entered the Realms of the Unreal, as Darger called his fictional world. In 1986, a museum curator flew him to Chicago to introduce him to Nathan and Kiyoko and their singular trove. Enraptured, he wrote Nathan a letter eight days later, expressing his desire to undertake long-term research with an eye to writing the first book on Darger. "Nathan had looked for years for somebody to cover Darger—psychiatrists, critics—but nobody was prepared to commit the kind of time that was needed," says MacGregor. "I was the first person to come along who was really willing to put in some time."

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Henry Darger: "It’s too late now."
David Berglund

Gaining their trust wasn't easy. Kiyoko Lerner recalls that at first, "Nathan felt John was very academic," and perhaps not the best person to capture "the conflict between God and Henry." But MacGregor's persistence paid off; he says that after assuring Nathan that he had no intention of tracking down any possible Darger relations—which might have meant contesting the rights to the artwork—there were no more obstacles to his access. MacGregor grew close to the couple. An interview with Nathan forms Henry Darger's foreword, and MacGregor was visibly moved last month when he heard, moments before his talk began, that he was in fact about to deliver the American Folk Art Museum's inaugural Nathan Lerner Annual Lecture. (One of the first slides he projected, as chance would have it, was a snapshot of him and Lerner.)

Maintaining his home base in San Francisco, MacGregor would take the train to Chicago once or twice a year, for a month or two each time, house-sitting whenever the Lerners went on a trip. He would come armed with a specific research goal: "I'd go to the room, copy out what I needed, and then go home."

This enforced distance helped him stay afloat in the sea of Darger's writings, which, he argues, are written with skill, imagination, and even occasional humor. (MacGregor's book includes numerous excerpts of Henry's writing, which bear this statement out; most startling is the character/creator interplay—pure Don Quixote—as when an Angelinian colonel discovers the writings of one Henry Darger.) No discussion of the paintings can afford to ignore this narrative, or Henry's own complex psychological makeup, which infuses every part of the story—from the gruesome, protracted warfare to the dragonlike creatures known as Blengins. Aside from the reams of the Realms—13 immense volumes, densely typed—MacGregor had to contend with Darger's 5084-page autobiography (History of My Life), a 10-year daily weather journal, assorted diaries, and a second work of fiction, provisionally entitled Crazy House, of over 10,000 handwritten pages. (Written after the Realms, it takes that epic's major characters—the seven Vivian sisters and their companion/secret brother, Penrod—and places them in Chicago, with the action unfolding during the same years as that of the earlier book.) MacGregor estimates that he's read two-thirds of the Realms, scrutinizing certain sections in their entirety, and methodically scanning the rest for any significant plot or tonal surprises. "I've been on every page," he says, and notes that a thorough reading would have required a full year per volume.

For psychiatric purposes, the material is of an unusually pure grade. MacGregor points out that Darger generated far more sheer wordage than one would find in the verbatim transcript of 10 years of psychoanalysis. Indeed, the Realms' basic conflict—between the monstrously evil Glandelinians, who enslave and torture children, and the Angelinians, whose Christian goodness is epitomized by the seven brave Vivian sisters—practically demands this treatment. In his fictional world, Darger was able to achieve an astonishing psychic split, so that the demands of the glands were in epic struggle with codes of angelic morality. Has there been a better model of the constant conflict between id, ego, and superego?

The central wound of Darger's life was the loss of his mother, who died of puerperal septicemia right after giving birth to his sister. Darger was not yet four; the sister was put up for adoption by his harried father, who would eventually give up raising his increasingly unruly son. Darger never knew, or claimed never to have known, his mother's name (or his sister's); MacGregor has discovered that it was Rosa or Rosie—and also that Henry was in fact her third child. (The previous two may have been illegitimate; it is also possible that Darger's parents were not legally married.) MacGregor's detective work yielded information on Darger's admitting physician and diagnosis ("self-abuse"), and he sheds light on the atrocious conditions at the Lincoln Asylum, where a truly grotesque scandal broke out during Darger's stay: a child ravaged by rats, a doctor who died after attempting self-castration, a teacher who used inmate corpses for anatomy lessons, referring to the deceased by name.

The boundless violence of the Realmsstarts to become more explicable; the inhumanity reads like sublimated reportage. Poring over MacGregor's meticulous and moving study (the endpapers are photos of Henry's room), one thinks of the beginning of The Good Soldier: This is the saddest story I have ever heard.


At the start of the first Nathan Lerner Annual Lecture, entitled "The Aronburg Mystery: Murder in the Realms of the Unreal," John MacGregor warns the audience that graphic details lie ahead, and says, "Feel free to leave if you find it more than you wish to put up with."

No one bails, though several listeners shake their heads during particularly stomach-churning patches. In his lecture, MacGregor explores the connections between the disappearance of Darger's photo of Elsie Paroubek, a girl who was kidnapped and murdered in Chicago in 1911, and her counterpart in the Realms, the child martyr Annie Aronburg. Both girls, real and fictional, are conflated with Darger's real sister—and with the fictional, orphanage-destroying tornado known as "Sweetie Pie," whose story overtakes the last 4878 pages of Darger's History of My Life. Patiently building up his argument, MacGregor proposes that the Glandelinians' obsession with disemboweling children has its roots in the young Darger's loss of his mother due to his sister's birth. Their attacks on the inner body can be seen as repayment in kind. The horror takes on a tragic cast.

All the violence in Darger's work helped refine MacGregor's concept of the artist. "That stuff is scattered all over the Realms, so I was hitting it for years," he says. "I think the most important thing it did was to make me take very, very seriously Darger—to stop seeing him as a folk hero or something, and realize that this was a man with pretty serious problems. No question he could have been dangerous."

Chicago-area scholar Michael Bonesteel, who edited and introduced Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings, recalls meeting MacGregor in the mid '90s while researching their respective books. "I think he considered himself the senior scholar," he says. Though they agree on a number of points, Bonesteel objects to "his take that in his heart Darger's a serial killer. . . . I think there's no question that he has a mental illness—but I don't really think it's as severe as perhaps Dr. MacGregor would see it."

"Is John MacGregor a controversial figure?" asks Brooke Davis Anderson, director and curator of the American Folk Art Museum's Contemporary Center, who has worked closely with MacGregor in establishing the Darger study center. "Yes. Because in his public speaking about Darger, he often presents him as a known murderer and pedophile. And these are things that we don't know." But Anderson admits that she hasn't actually heard these accusatory lectures; rather, "the controversy has been born mostly out of a feeling by audience members that it's unfounded and that it's a bit inflammatory."

But has MacGregor ever made such claims? He denies it. At the "Aronburg" lecture, he read aloud from a 2000 Timesarticle by Sarah Boxer: "Mr. MacGregor has suggested that Darger murdered her."

"It bluntly states that I thought Darger was a kidnapper and murderer of Elsie Paroubek," he says, his frustration audible. "I've never made such a wild and unprovable statement." He then cites and dismisses a Wall Street Journalpiece for a similarly misleading take.

Journalists sometimes like the pose of knowledge as much as the knowledge itself (perhaps explaining why one of the Realms' fictional Henry Dargers is a reporter). In a 1997 Slatepiece, for example, Larissa MacFarquhar dismisses MacGregor thus: "Despite the fact that virtually nothing is known about Darger's inner life, MacGregor (typically, for a critic of outsider art) writes confidently about how compulsive Darger was. . . . MacGregor careers from the vulgar Freudian to the idiosyncratically bizarre—for instance, 'The trauma of [Darger's mother's] death was represented in his later life by an obsessional preoccupation with weather.' " She writes confidently about how nothing is known, when in fact Darger left behind a virtual report card of his mental state; what's vulgar is her knee-jerk reaction to anything with the whiff of Vienna.

That same year, Time's Robert Hughes attacked a statement by MacGregor ("psychologically, Darger was undoubtedly a serial killer"), calling it "a wildly irresponsible judgment, since practically nothing is known about [Darger's] character, and in any case, he never harmed a fly." It is Hughes's verdict that is wildly irresponsible—first for not pausing to consider the meaning of "psychologically," and second, for assuming intimate knowledge of a life he in fact knows little about. (As a boy, Darger did, in fact, exhibit a marked aggression toward younger children, and once slashed a teacher seriously enough that his father had to foot a hospital bill.)

I think something curious and heretofore unacknowledged has been taking place, an unconscious disavowal on the part of some viewers and critics—a phenomenon that could make for a chapter in The Discovery of the Art of the Insane. Through misquoting, mishearing, and misreading, people have turned this careful scholar into a veritable Kinbote, a moral scapegoat to whom can be assigned all the darkest theories—as if he were the one who had applied the delicate wash of watercolor blood at the base of a severed head, or imagined the force-feeding of body parts to children. What do we want from John MacGregor? Perhaps this: to saddle him with all our deepest anxieties about the possible actions of Henry Darger, so that the madman-scholar can be rejected with a show of presumptuous indignation. It is the secret expiation required to enjoy Darger without tears.

Anyone who has read MacGregor's Discovery is aware of his sensitivity and impeccable scholarship—then again, as he points out, the book was reviewed mainly in psychiatric rather than art publications. His shorter pieces exhibit an immense sympathy with the mentally handicapped. He says that studying Darger has made him "a slightly more accepting person—accepting of myself, accepting of others, accepting of Henry." Rather than judge Darger on moral grounds, MacGregor seeks to understand the whole person—the art and the life, the consumable colors as well as the anguished cogitations of the most desperate loneliness.

What he doesfind morally objectionable is the traffic in outsider art, including Darger's. "I have nothing to do with dealers, and all that kind of business," he says. "This art was not created for the purpose of being sold or bought—it was not created to be art at all. The wishes of the artist should be respected."

When one curator I speak with suggests that MacGregor has toned down his previous indiscretions for his Darger tome because "he has a book to sell," I'm reminded that he only grudgingly agreed, at the behest of his lawyer and publisher, to take any royalties on Henry Darger. (The book, completed in November 1997, has had a tortuous road to print: legal wrangling with Kiyoko Lerner, and the dismay of publishers who would not consider bringing it out unless he drastically cut his thousand manuscript pages. "I was clearly hopeless about it," he says.) In the past, he's given his royalties on books to Creative Growth, an Oakland program that teaches art-making to disabled adults. This is a frugal man, who at times seems to have an almost holy regard for art's existence outside of commerce. It's no coincidence that the copyright page bears Henry's incantation:

All the Gold in the Gold Mines

All the Silver in the world

Nay, all the world,

Cannot buy these pictures from me.

Vengeance, thee terrible vengeance

On those who steals or destroys them.


Occupying pride of place at the American Folk Art Museum's main Darger exhibit, in a vitrine by the foot of the crucifix-shaped space, is the sole remaining spine from one of the three books in which Henry Darger originally bound his paintings. The paintings were cut free by Lerner, in order to be exhibited more easily. What's left on the bone are scraps of color: tantalizing shreds of landscapes, part of a child's head.

As Brooke Anderson explained at a Darger symposium in March, it's "symbolic of future research." If Darger is the tree falling in the forest that happened to make a sound, then this is the trunk, an invitation to dendochronology: by matching the detached artworks to the stubs, an order can be established for the creation of at least some of the paintings.

In Chicago, Darger's room was maintained (with some alterations) until 2000, when Kiyoko Lerner decided to sell it to Michael Lerner, a real estate developer who is Nathan's son from his first marriage. The room's objects—from the boxes of paints and old National Geographics to the fireplace tiles and sink—were acquired by Chicago's Intuit center, which plans to re-create the space. If Darger's native city gets the shell, then New York has acquired the pearl: the written and graphic material, which form the basis for the Henry Darger Study Center. Kiyoko Lerner had negotiated with several other institutions, including Atlanta's High Museum of Art and the Milwaukee Art Museum, before reaching an agreement (also in 2000) with the American Folk Art Museum. According to Anderson, the museum bought 26 paintings for $1 million and received the archive as a gift from Lerner, with the understanding that it would be conserved and available for scholars. It contains all of Darger's written material (50,000 pages), which will be available on microfilm in the fall, and a trove of 3000 pieces of graphic ephemera, including the salvaged scraps that served as Darger's ur-material: depictions of girls from magazines and comic strips, which he painstakingly incorporated into his compositions.

Brooke Anderson says the museum is looking for two doctoral candidates, one in art history and one in literature, to become fellows at the center. ("Someone who likes to read!" she says.) The main tasks will involve marrying the images to the text and developing a catalogue raisonné; given the plethora of material, countless other projects await. Lytle Shaw recently published an essay (in Cabinet) on the moral accounting found in Darger's weather journals, and Michael Bonesteel is helping prepare an abridged edition of Darger's novel, a project that he predicts will take years.

As for MacGregor, he's leaving the field of outsider art entirely, after finishing a book this year on the mechanomorphic art of Frank Travis, a schizophrenic Canadian artist. "I've done what I wanted to do," he says of his sojourn along the border of the mind and what it makes, and through the realms of Henry Darger in particular. "I don't want to repeat myself. I'm walking away from the match, after I've just won Wimbledon." At 61, it's not too late for him to return to his other passion, East Asian art and archaeology; the Han dynasty awaits, as does a trip lecturing on the Orient Express. And so the man who never entered the room at 851 Webster without saying "Hello, Henry" is at last bidding farewell.

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