Jim Elledge’s, Henry Darger: Throw Away Boy presents a rich portrait of the outsider artist’s life, scaffolded with a decade’s worth of research. Arguing against claims that Darger “was a pedophile, a sadist, or a serial killer”, Elledge has produced a fascinating, and frankly heart-wrenching, account that explains Darger’s work through the context of it’s creation. The narrative is so devastating and compelling that the reader begins to regard the mere of existence of Darger’s art as a miracle.
Bereft of his mother at the age of four, Darger was raised by an alcoholic father in one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods, the Madison Street vice district. Growing up in the era that Upton Sinclair published The Jungle (1906), Darger’s life began in unspeakable circumstances and went from bad to worse. At twelve he was abandoned to the care state institutions, in which he remained until he escaped at sixteen. The places in which Darger lived from the time he was four until his early twenties exposed him to repeated traumas as victim and witness to rape, beating, torture and murder.
Young Darger’s life is full of shocking and upsetting details, and Ellidge connects them directly to his epic illustrated manuscripts, giving real life names to Darger’s fictional events and characters. He is shown to be not only a victim of a terrible set of circumstances but also a homosexual at a time when the word was not spoken in good company. An interesting facet to the book, Elledge’s expert knowledge of the gay culture of the time sheds an entirely new light on Darger and his world.
Though misinterpretations of his work have focalized Darger as a predator, Elledge disproves these snap judgements by exploring his history and traumas. He re-posits Darger as a man full of love, hope, and sometimes rage – a man who used art to express and cope with a truly tragic lot in life.
Reviewed by Alta Buden
This book is available from The Overlook Press.