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  • Jasper Woods

Boxing People: On Henry Darger and Outsider Art

Excerpt from my forthcoming speculative fiction novel, The Granite Letter:

"The alternate realities of all oppressed humans is something I consider often. What might they achieve, become, voice, unveil if only they were seen, heard, and accepted? What cages hold humans—adult and child—who might bring some light into the growing darkness?"

  • Excerpt from Emria's Our Journey to Pasha’s Planet. Unpublished due to the onset of the Sorrowful Times, original copy housed in the Lawrence Enclave’s Learning Center, Quartet of Honor Section.

There are more excerpts from Emria’s book featured inThe Granite Letter. As I was thinking through how I might get ya’ll pumped for it, I wandered into the idea of making a trailer in collaboration with artists. And then I thought of Henry Darger.

On Henry Darger

The documentary “In the Realms of the Unreal” first introduced me to Henry, his work, and outsider art.

Henry was born in 1892 in Chicago to Henry Sr. and Rosa. The ghost of his birth home appears to be a part of the Chicago L in what is now China Town. His mother passed to the dream that is next in 1896 from puerperal fever after she gave birth to Henry’s sister. Henry was 4-years old.

His sister was given up for adoption. They never knew each other.

Because of a disability his father couldn’t continue to care for Henry. At 8, he was placed in a Roman Catholic Orphanage. At 12 they transferred him to (and I’m definitely quoting here) “The Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children” in Lincoln, Illinois. (We’ve come a long way and still have a ways to go caring for wounded youth. Wounded anyone. Something I explore in The Granite Letter.)

Henry tried to escape three times. The third time was the charm. He made it back to Chicago in 1909. He was 17.

And here we come to it. When he was somewhere between 18 and 20 years-old, he started in on his first novel:

  • 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's novel is 15,000 pages. A typical novel is somewhere between 250 to 350 pages, or 70,000 to 100,000 words. Henry’s novel contains millions of words. Millions. My novel is 112,000 words, down from 140,000, and surely will go down further as it undergoes a development edit, currently in progress. It took me a year to write all those words and three years of revising. Henry worked on his for 25.

If I were to title my novel in the style of Henry:

  • The Time Nomad’s Tale of the Fractured Dream, Pieced Back Together––in Some Ways Too Late, in Other Ways Just in Time––by a Symphony of Synchrony

Current title: The Granite Letter. We’ll see.

In addition to all the words Henry penned, the novel also includes hundreds of images he created.

Never formally educated or trained, Henry taught himself to write and make art. He did not seek fame or money. He only wanted to express himself and (my guess) process. That is a definition of outsider art.

Given that definition, I meet the following criteria: fame is unnecessary, money’d be all right ("This is where we live, Shelly!"). My chief goal is to express some processing I’ve been doing about our current state of affairs, climate change, and other matters. Plus, write a really cool sci-fi mystery thriller.

Henry’s work was discovered and valued at the very end of his life as he retreated inside himself at St. Augustine’s Home—where his father was placed decades before. Henry lived another year and passed to the dream that is next one day after his 81st birthday.

Henry’s fellow tenant, David Berglund, emptied Henry’s apartment and came across his art and manuscripts (there is a 2nd novel, a mere 8,500 pages long). David alerted their landlord, also an artist.

Shortly before Henry died, David visited him. He praised his art. Henry said this:

“It’s too late now.”

Fortunately, for us it’s not too late to experience Henry's work despite him being labeled.

On Caging People

There are many ways to cage people. Some are caged by labels and check boxes. Here are the labels placed on Henry:

  • Crazy—Mission of Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Orphanage

  • Feeble minded––Lincoln, IL Asylum

  • Peculiar—his father

  • Shell-shocked war veteran—a previous landlord (Henry was drafted and served briefly before being honorably discharged.)

  • Emotionally arrested—his bio on

  • Self-abuser—on his admission to the Lincoln asylum. A term used for “excessive masturbation”. At the age of 12, likely a symptom of sexual abuse.

  • Pauper—buried in a “pauper’s” grave per his bio.

  • Hoarder––most everyone

How might we characterize Henry as of this writing?

On Resilience

What Henry survived:

  • the death of his parents

  • loss of his sister

  • poverty

  • bullying

  • emotional, physical, and likely sexual abuse as a child

Despite all of those experiences, here’s what Henry achieved:

  • a steady string of employment

  • self-reliance

  • financial independence

  • over 25,000 pages of words strung together in novels and an autobiography

  • hundreds of paintings

Henry was a janitor and dishwasher. A tenant. Friend. Son. Brother. Veteran. Artist. Writer. An advocate for abused children and a staunch critic of the system intended to serve them.

Henry is an influence on artists and art creation.

There are many more outsider artists past, present, and to come.

On Collaborating with Artists

The images you see on this site are meant to evoke rather than depict. They were created by AMAZING artists. Their links are on their respective creations. The prompts came from The Granite Letter. In addition to generating intrigue for my book, my intention is to bring awareness to artists of all kinds––outsider, trained, veteran, emerging, and on.

If there are any artists (outsider, trained, or other) who wish to create images for this site, hit me up.

On The Granite Letter

Many of my main and supporting characters are or once were outsiders. Some are wrestling with the unhealed wound of trauma. Some are healing, some healed. All exude the resilience of Henry. Well, except for the villain;)

A Final Wondering

Every time I encounter a janitor, learn resilience from a child who was abused, encounter someone whose brain works uniquely from my own, I wonder––another Henry Darger?

Sitting with Henry’s journey and others who have been and are dismissed as disposable, I wonder, aren’t we all outsiders until we’re an insider? When an insider, who are we keeping out? Who are we boxing ourselves off from? Here's what I believe––when I put someone else in a box, I put me in one too.

I invite you to learn more about Henry and other artists.

Resources + References:

1 commentaire

Christi R. Suzanne
Christi R. Suzanne
31 mai 2023

Great post! Love the description of outsider art and now I have something new to watch and to learn about.

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