What do You Know of Henry Darger?

Do you know anything of the story of Henry Darger? I’ll confess that before my lunch break on Tuesday I only knew that name from a song from the 2001 Natalie Merchant album, “Motherland.” It’s a haunting tune with beautiful orchestration in parts; I don’t know why I never investigated its origins before…

But that changed when I clicked on a link someone had shared Tuesday on Facebook or Twitter. It was to a post on Flavorwire titled “10 of the Most Cryptic Texts in the World.” They had me.  I was stopped dead in my tracks when the second work mentioned was attributed to someone named Henry Darger. As I said above, I knew that name but had never given much thought to who he was, or even if he was indeed a real person. He was indeed.


(above: one of the only three photographs known to exist of Darger)

The Flavorwire article only offers the following “Reclusive artist Henry Darger created an elaborate mythology surrounding a battle between child slaves and vicious overlords that was realized in a 15,145-page saga 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.” That was enough to set me off searching the Internet.

Henry Darger (1892-1973) was a short, unassuming man who worked almost his entire adult life as a custodian in Chicago. It was what he did in his off hours that was remarkable. In addition to the 15k page novel, other posthumous discoveries were thousands of works of art (some containing, frankly, rather disturbing imagery) and vast other writings, including his nearly 5,000 page “History of My Life.” His work has become a frequently cited example of “outsider art” (I’m not sure how exactly this is officially defined, but I prefer to think of it as art without the benefit of any formal training).

(below: the Vivian Girls evading capture?)


Darger spent several of his early years in the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children, and the experiences he had therein certainly played a role in his developing the rich mythology – the most prominent theme of which was children in peril – that he chronicled in his magnum opus. I can’t help wondering what this man’s life was like, with its daily drudgery of work, capped by what must have been to him comfortable evenings of returning to the sanctuary his small, one-room apartment and re-entering a rich fantasy realm and working tirelessly on his art. How little we know about what rich, inner lives that perhaps are being led by some of the  people in our everyday world!

(below: some of Darger’s manuscripts)


There was an award winning documentary film about Darger that was released in 2004, which may be found on YouTube (though not viewable on mobile devices). Thus far I’ve only seen a few minutes but I will definitely watch the rest over the weekend.

There is an excellent Wikipedia article on Darger as well that includes a few examples of his art. This article included the following which made me chuckle a bit: “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.”

Here are the lyrics to the Natalie Merchant song, and a link to a recorded version:


Who’ll save the poor little girl?
Henry Darger
Henry Darger

Who’ll save the poor little girl?
o, Henry…

Who’ll tell the story of her?
Henry Darger
Henry Darger

Who’ll tell it all to the world?
o, Henry…

Who’ll buy the carbon paper now?
Henry Darger
Henry Darger

Who’ll trace the lines of her mouth?
o, Henry…

Who will conquer foreign worlds
searching for the stolen girls?

Princesses you’ll never fear
the patron saint of girls is here!

Who will draw the calvary in
risk his very own precious skin
to make our Angelinia a free and peaceful land again?


Who’ll love a poor orphan child?
Henry Darger
Henry Darger

Lost, growing savage and wild?
o, Henry
o, Henry
o, Henry

Were you aware of Henry Darger? I fear I may be the only person with literary interests never to have heard about his story…(?)


  1. Dee said,

    July 18, 2013 at 7:28 pm

    Hi …… Yes!!!!There was a wonderful documentary on him 4-5 years ago here ……. Also: have you heard of visionary artist Charles Dellschau? I just heard of him via FB.


    • Jay said,

      July 19, 2013 at 8:06 am

      Hi Dee,
      Thanks for tipping me off about Charles Dellschau. I did some internet browsing on him last night. Oddly similar to Henry Darger, with perhaps less of a creepiness factor. 🙂


  2. Dale said,

    July 18, 2013 at 7:32 pm

    I had not heard of Henry Darger or this song, but he sounds fascinating and so does the song. Natalie Merchant obviously has some literary background. I’ve enjoyed her music over the years. I kind of lost track of her after she went solo. 10,000 Maniac’s album “In My Tribe” has always been one of my favorites. I remember they recorded a version of Cat Steven’s “Peace Train” and then took it off the album when he supported the fatwah against Salman Rushdie.

    And then there was another literary song on that album: “Hey Jack Kerouac”.

    Thanks for bringing back memories!



    • Jay said,

      July 19, 2013 at 8:09 am

      Hi Dale,
      You’re welcome. 🙂 I remember the Hey Jack Kerouac song too! I’m a big fan of Natalie’s going way back. Did you continue following 10,000 Maniacs after her departure? I think I have one of their CDs without her – maybe the first one after she left – called Love Among the Ruins. I thought it was pretty good but the subsequent effort less so, so I stopped following them.


      • Dale said,

        July 19, 2013 at 9:08 pm

        I didn’t listen to Maniacs after she left. I remember “In My Tribe” and “Blind Man’s Zoo” as the albums I listened to the most. I remember the Unplugged concert, too. Was that 10,000 Maniacs or just Merchant?


        • Jay said,

          July 20, 2013 at 11:35 am

          That was still 10,000 Maniacs at that point, but was “near the end” of their association. Loved their cover of the Patti Smith Group’s Because the Night – almost as good as the original.


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