A Reclusive Genius

There is a stereotype of authors as solo operators who toil away in isolation, driven to create by the work itself more than dreams of financial reward. Like most stereotypes that isn’t always the case, but there are examples who embody it. For this stereotype, I can’t think of a better example than Henry Joseph Darger Jr.

Henry was an American writer, novelist and artist, but it seems almost no one who knew him was aware of it. We know about Darger thanks to his landlords who recognised the brilliance in his work when clearing out his home after he died. They discovered that Darger had written 15,145-page, single-spaced fantasy novel called 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. This mighty tome easily surpasses the Wheel of Time (under 12,000 pages) and is equivalent to the entire Discworld canon (of 45 novels). In the words of a tv advertorial, but wait, there’s more! Darger also created several hundred drawings and watercolor paintings illustrating the story. He used a lot of mixed media and collage in the works. As a child Darger was unable to be cared for by his infirmed father, so was placed in an orphanage. It is reported that he displayed some noise-based ticks, perhaps indicating a mild case of Tourette’s syndrome or a place on the autism spectrum. After eight years Darger left (escaped) the orphanage and found work as an orderly in a hospital. From then on he would work during the day and work on In the Realms of the Unreal in the evenings.

Darger appears to be untrained in the arts, so his work is considered the quintessential ‘outsider art’. He literally created his novel and art unaided and without feedback, hence why I think he’s the perfect example of the author working alone stereotype.

His book comprises fifteen immense, densely typed volumes and was created over six decades. But wait, there’s still more, he wrote a second book! It appears to have been written after In the Realms of the Unreal was completed. It is a tale of a house that is possessed by demons and haunted by ghosts, or has an evil consciousness of its own and was called Crazy House: Further Adventures in Chicago. It was over 10,000 handwritten pages long. So, the next time someone tells me I’m impressively productive because I’ve written a few books while working full-time, I have the perfect counter. But wait, there’s even still more!

Darger began writing a third book – a history of his life. The book spends 206 pages detailing Darger’s early life before veering off into 4,672 pages of fiction about a huge twister called “Sweetie Pie”, probably based on memories of a tornado he had witnessed as a child.

Darger must have been obsessed with his writing. It’s staggering to think how much effort went into creating the books and even more impressive since there is no evidence he ever intended to publish them. Indeed, they are still considered unpublished, though many of the artworks have been sold (NB: his work is among the highest-priced of any self-taught artist and can command upwards of US$750,000). Not all are in private hands and Darger’s works can now be found in many museums around the world, including the Museum of Old and New Art, in Tasmania. I hope to visit it one day so I can pay my respect to this incredible human.

So truly a Great Moment in Literature. Next time I’ll discuss someone who was also considered a genius, but one who in the case of their most famous work, was motivated to write it for an entirely different purpose to Darger.

This post is part of my Great Moments in Literature series. So you never miss a new Great Moment, please subscribe to my list or this website:

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