The Henry Darger Papers measure approximately 110 linear feet and range in date from 1909 to 1971. The bulk of the material in the series Writings/Manuscripts, and Resource and Visual Materials are undated.
The collection holds the complete manuscripts of Darger’s books. See the catalogue raisonné of “The writings of Henry J. Darger” in Appendix A for notes regarding the assumed order of the manuscripts. The manuscripts are both handwritten and typed, some of which are elaborately bound with string, tape, and other materials. Covers of the larger manuscripts were created by Darger, often decorated with illustrated paper and hand-painted manuscript titles. Throughout the collection, Darger uses the backside of paper sheets, flyers, and notebooks—presumably pulled from the trash—which occasionally contain writing by other unidentified individuals. Darger’s writings include The History of My Life, an autobiography of more than five thousand pages; and Further Adventures in Chicago: Crazy House, a sequel to The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnean War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, the artist’s illustrated epic about another world torn apart by war.
When In the Realms of the Unreal was completed, after decades of work, the typewritten manuscript totaled 15,145 pages and comprised thirteen volumes. Hundreds of large, scroll-like paintings bound into three huge volumes accompany the narrative. In the Realms of the Unreal is the tale of seven little girls—the Vivian Girls—who set out to rescue abducted children who have been enslaved by the adult Glandelinians. The heroes in this tale are always the children; the villains are typically adults. This story of war and peace, of good versus evil, loosely parallels many of the events of the American Civil War. In Darger’s version of conflict, the enslaved people are white children who usually appear unclothed and are of mixed gender.
Darger’s writings also include his personal diaries and journals. His writings include a six-volume weather journal that Darger kept daily from 1957 to 1967. The journal annotates weather reports as listed in the local paper, accompanied by Darger’s own interpretation of the weather on that particular day. One journal, dated June 1911 to December 1917, contains “predictions” related to storylines in Darger’s accompanying manuscripts. Another journal (undated) contains lists of Darger’s favorite poems and songs, as well as Abbienian song titles, copied religious texts, and his own personal daily schedule, listing masses that he attended each day.
The source and visual material in the collection contain the full breadth of resource material that Darger used for his paintings and visual output. These series contain the resource materials used in his artwork, including clippings from coloring books, comic books, and newspapers.
These series feature subject matter common in many of his artworks: architecture, civil war imagery, disasters (volcanoes, fires, tornadoes), girls, flora, fauna, illustrations of horns, and miscellaneous weather imagery. Reflecting the artist’s obsessive nature, the series contains hundreds of clippings featuring the same subject, often the same image in many versions and in multiples. The clippings illustrate Darger’s use of American popular media as a visual palette for his artwork, and include clippings of Little Annie Rooney, the Bobbsey Twins, Coppertone Girl advertisements, Buck Rogers comics, and miscellaneous clippings and advertisements from local newspapers and periodicals such as Life and Red Book.
Darger experimented with various methods to achieve his aesthetic vision. These techniques involved collage and appropriation from popular media. If he could not master the freehand rendering of the human figure, he would trace images from magazines, comic books, and other collected print sources. Many clippings in the collection contain carbon markings left from his tracing technique. Darger repeated the use of selected images, sometimes within a single painting. He would paste action cutouts of soldiers from newspaper comics, or trace the images of his principal protagonists (i.e., children) from coloring books and other sources and manipulate the size photographically to fit the scale of the painting.
Visual material in the collection include photographic prints and negatives, Darger’s own traced transfer drawings made from these photographic enlargements, and paper-based collaged imagery and portraiture, further illustrating Darger’s creative processes. The collection contains photographic print envelopes from his local drugstores, accompanied by enlargements ordered by Darger of selected poses from popular-media sources, which were photographically reproduced and resized per his instruction. In this manner, he created a library of numerous images, which were stored in drugstore envelopes and labeled according to their intended use. Envelopes in the collection contain Darger’s notations both to himself, presumably about how he intended to use them in his artwork, as well as notations for the photo lab to follow when duplicating his selected clippings.
Darger’s personal records (approximately one cubic foot) contain a limited amount of personal and business correspondence, including a collection of religious material containing prayer cards, scapulars, clippings, and religious imagery; some financial records (pay stubs and bank account books); and assorted ephemera and handwritten notes. The records document Darger’s income and savings (1930-1967), letters of recommendation written for Darger, and a limited amount of personal correspondence, including greeting cards, postcards, and letters.
The collection also contains Darger’s personal book collection. Authors of particular note, of which Darger collected the most, are books by L. Frank Baum (the library holds sixteen books from Baum’s Wizard of Oz series of novels), Charles Dickens, and Johanna Spyri. The collection holds a wide range of children’s books, including the Heidi, Shirley Temple, and Bobbsey Twin novels; Grimm’s Fairy Tales; illustrated Civil War publications; and a selection of religious books, including bibles and assorted catechism, prayer, and hymn books.
The Henry Darger Papers reveal how the artist engaged himself in a creative process and how he came to make his aesthetic decisions. While Darger worked in isolation and chose to keep his projects private, the contents of the collection also document his involvement in the community of his church, his place of employment, his personal relationships, and his awareness and interest in current events, such as civil and world wars and historical events.