For three days I’ve done little else but read and think about Henry Darger. I won’t go into biographical details, since they are readily available using Google. I will, however, out of courtesy, give a link to a fellow WordPress blogger (who also gives plenty of links): Darger
Here’s the basic story: in 1973, shortly before Henry Darger’s death, Darger’s landlord found 30,000 pages of single-spaced typing on legal-sized paper, along with hundreds of artworks meant—or so most accounts say—to illustrate the written work. Darger was a recluse and a menial worker. His world was going to work, going to mass, scavenging materials for his projects, and his art. Again, you can read the basic details elsewhere.
I am utterly fascinated by this story for so many reasons it’s hard to know where to start.
One remarkable aspect of the story is the relative dearth of public information. I spent several hours reading almost everything Google turned up, and most of it is simply repetitive. Interestingly, much of it would seem to be wrong as well (though it is hard to be sure). Most of it falls into a kind of urban legend category in which “facts” are repeated so often that most accept them as true.
In spite of this dearth of public information, there is at least one major 600+ page biography and a 2004 documentary on him. Haven’t having read the book (as far as I can tell, one has to cough up a few hundred dollars to buy a used copy; otherwise it is unavailable), and having not seen the documentary (which is available—in case anyone wants to send me a gift), I would still have to assume that there is an enormous amount of speculation regarding the details of his life.
But this is neither mysterious nor surprising, though the word “mystery” is often used about the story.
What is unusual is that no one seems to have read his work except for a few. The biographer claims to have “been on every page”, the documentary director made the attempt but gave up, and perhaps a few scholars we don’t know by name have spent countless hours perusing the work. Otherwise, the work remains unread.
This, in spite of the repeated claims that Darger is chiefly known for his writing, and in spite of claims regarding the literary merit of his work.
Let me address the latter claims first. The works consist of a 15,000+ page novel called The Story of the Vivian Girls (not the complete title); an 8,000+ page sequel called Further Adventures of the Vivian Girls in Chicago: Crazy House (of which I read in one single account—after many hours of reading—that the title is not his); a 5,000+ page autobiography (of which only the first few hundred are actually autobiographical); and the rest consisting of a journal of the daily weather. Of other odds and ends just as letters and such, I have found no accounts—though he appeared to be the kind of recluse who would hardly write letters.
Yet none of this is published.
Yes, a few excerpts have been published. A few excerpts from over 25,000 pages of literary fiction.
This means that the vast majority of commentary regarding the literary merits of his work is based on air—that and the comments of the few people who have seen the originals, but who have admitted not to have completely read the work. Not to mention that neither the biographer (a scholar, it is true, but an art critic by training) nor the documentary director are trained in literary analysis. Yes, I realize that one doesn’t have to have formal education in literary analysis to know if they are reading crap or not; yet a scholar in the field would at least give another kind of report to the world regarding what is actually contained in the manuscripts, rather than just using it to support a psychological analysis of it’s author.
Does the work show any kind of pre-meditated design, for example? Are there chapters and chapter headings? Did Darger construct an index? What voice does he usually write in? Does he use allusions? Metaphors? Is there any character development? Does he demonstrate a distinct narrative style? Does it remind one of a particular author which may or may not have influenced him?
And so on. You get the idea.
Then there is the oft repeated—and most obviously false, given the above point—comment that Darger is “known” primarily for his writing, the Story of the Vivian Girls in particular. This simply cannot be. We only know the writing by reputation. It hasn’t been published. Of course, since it hasn’t been published, it is a rather silly point to say that he is known for the Story of the Vivian Girls and not for Crazy House. An unpublished sequel is no less unpublished than an unpublished novel.
No, Henry Darger is known for his art. This makes perfect sense, since the executors of his estate—in fact, the landlords who discovered his work—were in the art scene and knew what to do with the artwork. They sold it. For large sums of money.
And yet: 30,000 pages of writing go unpublished and unanalyzed by the public at large.
If I were to be cynical (and those of you who know me know that I am), I would say that there seems to be no way to profit from the writings. The editing and reproduction of a work which—according to one source I read—amounts to a single novel five times longer than Proust’s, would seem to be a commercial non-starter. The project would probably take at least ten years if worked on by a team. And then it might bomb in the marketplace. I wouldn’t take on the challenge, if making a profit were my goal.
So, in all likelihood, the only people who will ever read any significant portion of Darger’s work are those scholars who go to the museum where the books and microfilm are kept and read them there.
Now, I’m not against people making money. A massive project to publish the work electronically and on the internet would probably be feasible, and would probably only increase the value of the art work. Only then could we begin to evaluate the literary merit of his work. And as long as people are going to go around celebrating the “artistry” of this man, I think such an evaluation is in order.
So, that’s one of the things I find fascinating about Henry Darger. His written work is legendary. But almost no one seems to have read it.