Henry Joseph Darger - 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
Henry Joseph Darger, Jr. (April 12, 1892 – April 13, 1973) was a reclusive American writer and artist who worked as a custodian in Chicago, Illinois. He has become famous for his posthumously-discovered 15,145-page, single-spaced fantasy manuscript called 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, along with several hundred drawings and watercolor paintings illustrating the story. Darger's work has become one of the most celebrated examples of outsider art.
Darger was born in Chicago, Illinois, to Rosa Fullman and Henry Joseph Darger, Sr. He is believed to have been born on April 12, 1892, though his exact date of birth is a subject of debate. A record exists of his U.S. draft registration card, filled out on June 2, 1917 during the First World War, which lists his birth date as April 17, 1892.
Cook County records show that he was born at his home, located at 350 W. 24th Street in Chicago. When he was four years old, his mother died after having given birth to a daughter, who was given up for adoption; Henry Darger never knew his sister. Darger's biographer, the art historian and psychologist John M. MacGregor, discovered that Rosa had two children before Henry, but did not discover their whereabouts.
Darger himself felt that much of his problem was being able to see through adult lies and becoming a 'smart-aleck' as a result, which often led to his being disciplined by teachers and ganged up on by classmates. He also went through a lengthy phase of feeling compelled to make strange noises (perhaps as a result of Tourette Syndrome) which irritated others. The Lincoln asylum's practices included forced labor and severe punishments, which Darger seems to have worked into In the Realms of the Unreal. He later said that, to be fair, there were also good times there, he enjoyed some of the work, and he had friends as well as enemies. While he was there, he received word that his father had died. A series of attempted escapes ended successfully in 1908. According to his autobiography, he walked back to Chicago from the asylum for "feeble-minded children" in Lincoln, and it was on this journey that he witnessed a huge tornado that devastated the central Illinois area. He described it as "a wind convulsion of nature tremendous beyond all man's conception". There was a tornado that hit the eastern edge of Tampico, Illinois, on November 25, 1908, at 7 p.m. Many barns, windmills and out buildings were turned over, smashed and demolished. Dwellings suffered a small amount of damage. No one was injured and no livestock killed. Tampico is located about 40 miles east-northeast of Moline and approximately 110 miles west of Chicago and 125 miles due north of Lincoln.
The 16-year-old returned to Chicago and, with the help of his godmother, found menial employment in a Catholic hospital and in this fashion continued to support himself until his retirement in 1963.
Except for a brief stint in the U.S. Army during World War I, his life took on a pattern that seems to have varied little: he attended Mass daily, frequently returning for as many as five services; he collected and saved a bewildering array of trash from the streets. His dress was shabby, although he attempted to keep his clothes clean and mended. He was largely solitary; his one close friend, William Shloder, was of like mind on the subject of protecting abused and neglected children, and the pair proposed founding a "Children's Protective Society," which would put such children up for adoption to loving families. Shloder left Chicago sometime in the mid-1930s, but he and Darger stayed in touch through letters until Shloder's death in 1959.
In 1930, Darger settled into a second-floor room on Chicago's North Side, at 851 W. Webster Avenue, in the Lincoln Park section of the city, near the DePaul University campus. It was in this room, for 43 years, that Darger imagined and wrote his massive tomes (in addition to a 10-year daily weather journal and assorted diaries) until his death in April 1973 in St. Augustine's Catholic Mission home (the same institution his father had died in). In the last entry in his diary, he wrote: "January 1, 1971. I had a very poor nothing like Christmas. Never had a good Christmas all my life, nor a good new year, and now.... I am very bitter but fortunately not revengeful, though I feel should be how I am..."
Darger is buried in All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines, Illinois, in a plot called "The Old People of the Little Sisters of the Poor Plot." Darger's headstone is inscribed "Artist" and "Protector of Children."