Storm of Creativity
by Nathaniel Rich

Much of what we know about the life of the reclusive writer and artist Henry Darger comes from his memoir, The History of My Life, which at just over 5,000 pages was one of the shortest things he ever wrote. The first 200 pages relate the story of his troubled childhood. Born in 1892 on Chicago's north side, he loses both of his parents at an early age, and a sister, whom he never meets, is given up for adoption. At the age of twelve, due to his unruly behavior (many believe that he was caught masturbating at Catholic school), he is sent to the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children, an institution which later attained local notoriety for its staff's abusive treatment of its patients, in a town over 100 miles south of Chicago. At age 17, Darger escapes the asylum and sets out for Chicago--by foot. He is on this trek home when, on page 206, he observes "a most singular and unbelievable phenomenon," his account of which tells us more about his personality and his art than any autobiographical detail ever could. The "phenomenon" that Darger sees is a giant tornado tearing across the plains. He does not try to contain his excitement:

It had far more wallop than even a powerful atomic bomb. However stupendous and shocking the many different catastrophes of the past may be, none of them can compare to this storm. It was a wind convulsion of nature tremendous beyond all man's conception, immeasurable beyond all man's conception, immeasurable beyond measure.

His description of this tornado, and the destruction it wreaks across southern Illinois, occupies the rest of his memoir--all 4,878 pages of it.

Although he never explicitly mentions it in the pages of his memoir, a different kind of storm did overtake Darger at this time in his life, a torrent of creativity that was itself a most singular and unbelievable phenomenon. Upon returning to Chicago after his cross-state trek he began work on The Story of the Vivian Girls, In What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, as caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. At 15,000 pages, it is by far the longest novel ever written. Over the next 65 years Darger would write, in addition to the Realms, an 8,000 page sequel, his memoir, and a number of journals and weather logs--over 30,000 pages in all, most of them typed single-spaced on oversized paper with small margins and few line breaks.

He also produced hundreds of haunting, darkly majestic paintings on scrolls as long as ten feet that illustrate scenes from the Realms. Darger did all of this in total secrecy and solitude while living in a succession of cheap one-room apartments. His neighbors knew him only as a prickly, penniless man who worked janitorial jobs and attended Church several times a day. Otherwise he rarely left his room. When he did, he would often be spotted talking to himself or picking through garbage cans. Whenever a neighbor or landlord tried to engage him in conversation he would not reply directly to their questions but only offer disconnected comments about the weather--particularly about storms and tornados that were headed, he warned, toward Chicago.


After Darger's death in 1973, his landlord of 40 years, a photographer and artist named Nathan Lerner, discovered the paintings and manuscripts while clearing out his room. In the decades since, and especially in recent years, the artwork has made Darger an international celebrity. His paintings have toured museums around the world, usually under the designation of "outsider art" (art made by unschooled and often mentally disturbed artists). Some of the larger ones have sold in galleries for six-figure prices. He is the subject of three major biographical studies (Michael Bonesteel's Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings, John MacGregor's exceptional Henry Darger: In the Realms of the Unreal, and the forthcoming The Old Man in the Polka-Dotted Dress: Looking for Henry Darger, by C.L. Morrison), several glossy art books, and now an excellent new film by the Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Jessica Yu.

The film, In the Realms of the Unreal, tells Darger's story primarily through his own words, blending together excerpts from his memoirs with resonant passages from his fiction. And while the story of Darger's life provides a narrative structure, it is the paintings that give the film its magical, hallucinatory qualities. Since Darger's canvases are crammed with detail and often very large, Yu decided to animate them in the film; this way, we do not lose sight of their intricate designs but are drawn in one detail at a time, with the flutter of a girl's eyelashes, or a little foot tapping under a table, or a soldier abruptly turning about-face. It is an uncanny and often thrilling style of animation, especially since most of the figures in Darger's paintings are posed facing outward, gazing blankly at the viewer. It is like watching them awake with a shudder from some long nightmare.

Yet Yu's most valuable contribution to the understanding of Darger is not the way she relates his life story, nor in the striking animation of his artwork. There is a subtle argument at work in this film, one that is never made explicit but which, like the animated paintings, comes alive in the details. What makes Darger's strange work so fascinating is not that it reflects the inner universe of someone we might consider to be an outsider (to the art and literary worlds, to society, to sanity), but that it reflects something far more familiar. To understand what this is it's necessary first to examine more closely, as Yu does, Darger's primary novel. More than Darger's paintings, it is his novel that yields the greatest insight into his technique, the sources of his inspiration, and his achievement.


Darger's In the Realms of the Unreal tells the story of an apocalyptic war that takes place on a planet "a thousand times as large as our own world, and with our earth as their moon." The war is waged by the good Christian nation of Abbiennia against the barbarous Glandelinia. When the saga begins, Glandelinia has already invaded the peaceful state of Calverinia, massacring its population, conquering its cities, enslaving its children, and forcing it to secede from the union of Christian Kingdoms. Our heroines are the Vivian girls, the seven angelic blond daughters of Abbiennia's emperor, who possess "a beauty that could never be described" (though Darger does exactly that for many pages at a time). Although they generally do not fight in the hundreds of battles waged over the course of the novel, they do take part in other ways. They cheer on their fellow Abbiennians, they lead secret reconnaissance missions into enemy territory, and they are consulted on important matters of military strategy. As such, they are hated by the Glandelinians, who gleefully torture the girls whenever they can. Yet despite the horrors the girls are forced to witness and endure (many of these episodes read like the last 30 days of the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom), their courage never falters. To the girls, war is "fun," "an exciting adventure," and "a thrilling time," as in: "[the Vivian girls] have a thrilling time fleeing through a field of gutted bodies of children, with shells bursting all around." The girls are braver than the novel's boys and most of the male soldiers as well. Their masculine nature is reflected in Darger's paintings, in which the girls, who usually appear naked, have male genitalia--a confusion that has led to fevered, if inconclusive, Freudian speculation about the psychological basis of Darger's art.

Like most mythology the fantastic world of the Realms incorporates legends and stories from other myths. As convenient as it might be to confer upon him outsider status, Yu's film makes clear that Darger's creations lie well within a very specific cultural tradition. Although Christian faith and morality are central to the story of the Realms, there are very few references to Christian legend within its pages. The stories that provide the basis for much of the novel are taken from the history books, comics, and novels that he first read as a child.

The war at the center of the novel is fought between a righteous Union of Christian states against a confederacy of states that practice slavery and seek to secede from the union; the evil Glandelinians even wear the grey uniforms of the Confederate Army. Causes of the war (there are many) include a legal dispute over the rights of a slave who had fled north to the free states--a children's Dred Scott. The battle descriptions themselves are closely modeled after the meticulously detailed accounts of the Civil War popular in Darger's day, though often with World War I weaponry and jargon inserted. Some of the scenes depicting the slaughter of children are clearly modeled after accounts of the massacre of Native American tribes: Before one attack, the children are seen as traveling in canoes and living in wigwams, pueblos, and longhouses. Darger's descriptions of warfare also look forward. Biographer John MacGregor has pointed out that Darger, years before the outbreak of World War II, described genocide committed in concentration camps and massive bombs that, exploding into mushroom clouds, wipe out entire cities in an instant.

Between battles, when Darger becomes occupied with the less grisly adventures of the Vivian girls and their comrades, he turns to his novels for inspiration. (In one scene, Yu pans across his old bookshelves, on which authors of long-forgotten children's novels share space with Cervantes, Dickens, and Melville.) Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin is given particular prominence--at one point, when Darger tires of describing the mistreatment of child slaves, he writes that "hundreds of sad incidents like Little Eva in 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' occurred," and leaves it at that. The Vivian girls' brother Penrod is named after Booth Tarkington's fabled child hero, and the Vivian girls at times bear a striking resemblance to Johanna Spyri's Heidi. A lengthy chapter on the taxonomy of the Realms' dragons, which includes the "Fairy Winged Gazonian” and the "Handsome Dude," reads like a fantastical version of the "Cetology" chapter of Moby Dick.

But Darger revered L. Frank Baum more than any other source. Like Darger, Baum lived in Chicago and toiled in obscurity for much of his life before writing the Oz series, another seemingly endless saga starring child heroes in a topsy-turvy parallel universe. Though as Darger wickedly points out, the similarities between the two worlds ended there: "I was just wondering lately what would the people of Oz do if their country had been somewhere in Calverinia ... and Glinda would see in her great record book, 'Great Glandelinian army advancing on the Emerald City, one hundred million strong.'" One can still hear him cackling to himself.

In his paintings Darger followed a similar strategy, using collage to incorporate into his canvases images from the newspapers and magazines he found in the trash. There is a mesmerizing montage in Yu's film in which she shows how Darger transformed pictures of children from advertisements for baby food and photographs of World War I soldiers into child slaves and Glandelinian soldiers. His literary influences are not as well camouflaged in his novels. Still, the Realms in its current form is, at times, an absorbing fairy tale of cataclysm, slavery, imperial design, childish hubris, and spiritual redemption. It's impossible not to wonder what the novel might have become under the influence of a ruthless editor, given a cohesive structure, and stripped of its maniacal repetition. Perhaps it would no longer be viewed as a portrait of a man made insane by an inner conflict between childlike naïveté and violent compulsions, but of a nation.