I Finally Learned Who Henry Darger Was

For a few years, I’ve owned “The Ballad of Henry Darger” by Natalie Merchant (off of Motherland). Frankly, it’s kind of an insipid song, but given Ms. Merchant’s fascination with American history, I’ve always assumed that Henry Darger was an actual person.

As it turns out, he was an incredibly fascinating outsider artist. From Wikipedia:

Henry Darger was a reclusive American writer and artist who worked as a janitor in Chicago, Illinois. He has become famous for his posthumously discovered 15,145-page fantasy manuscript called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, along with several hundred drawings and watercolor paintings illustrating the story.

That sounds quite remarkable, doesn’t it? Here are some sites with examples of Darger’s artwork, as well a site for a 2004 documentary about his life. I see that it played at Pacific Cinematheque in 2005–did anybody see it? Here’s a trailer with crappy sound, narrated by Dakota Fanning.


  1. Yes, I saw In the Realms of the Unreal, which feature some pretty amazing and creepy animations of Darger’s work. I wasn’t a big fan of the narration though.

  2. Yup, I saw the movie and found it interesting. I had seen Darger’s work in Drawn & Quarterly about 10 years ago, I think.

    I also visited the outsider art gallery in Chicago and got to ooh and ahh over Darger’s typewriter – then out of public view. I think the museum curator liked me because I asked about Darger at a time when few people knew him, this being before the movie came out.

    In a weird twist to the Darger story, Darger’s landlords took possession of all his belongings after his death. I read somewhere that they refused to allow researchers access to some records that may hold information on Darger’s long-lost sister (and a potential claimant on the now multimillion Darger estate). Anyhow, about a year or two ago, they sold the whole collection to a museum in New York. Rather a blow for Chicago, I think.

  3. That film stayed with me for days. An old man who spent his time drawing little girls with penises? We’ve heard this story turn ugly many times but never with a benignly sweet character secretly composing a masterful work of art.

    How bizarre, too, that he could be so ambitious behind closed doors and so utterly without ambition in public.

    I agree that the neighbors seemed awfully self-serving.

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