Queer culture historian Elledge (Professional Writing Program/Kennesaw St. Univ.; H: Poems, 2012, etc.) provides a startling new perspective on a famous outsider artist.
A reclusive dishwasher who spent his spare time writing sprawling novels and illustrating them with vivid drawings and collages, Henry Darger (1892–1973) has inspired equal amounts of praise, derision and horror. His epic work, In the Realms of the Unreal, depicts the adventures of the Vivian Girls, a group of child warriors who retaliates against the barbaric generals who torture, rape and kill innocent children. The graphic nature of the illustrations, along with the fact that the girls often appear naked and have male genitalia, has alternately fascinated and repulsed viewers. Some historians have accused Darger of pedophilia, and others have even suggested that his obsession with the disappearance and murder of a local girl indicate that he may have killed her (her murder was never solved). Elledge takes umbrage at these accusations and makes a case for Darger as a man who had himself been the victim of sexual abuse, both in the seedy Chicago neighborhood where he grew up and in the various institutions where he lived as an adolescent after his alcoholic father abandoned him. Elledge also claims that Darger’s decadeslong relationship with William Schloeder was a romantic one, citing Darger’s own oblique journal entries as well as research on gay culture in Chicago during the early 20th century. While Elledge has clearly conducted an impressive amount of research on Darger’s milieu, the artist’s own unwillingness to specify what actually happened to him during his years of institutionalization make the author’s assertions speculative at best. He also fails to place Darger within the context of other 20th-century self-taught artists until the last few pages of the book, and he barely covers Darger’s striking use of color and composition.
The author’s sociocultural agenda distorts a deeper understanding of the artist’s oeuvre.