Skip to main content

Henry Darger Papers

Identifier: A0006

Scope and Contents

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.


  • 1909 - 1971


Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open for research. Material in the collection may be restricted because of the physical condition of the material, the number of material requested, the purpose of the access, and the sensitivity of the archival material's contents. See series level descriptions for more detailed information on restrictions.

Conditions Governing Use

The Henry Darger Papers are owned by the American Folk Art Museum. The collection is subject to all copyright laws, and is dedicated to public use for research, study, and scholarship.

Biographical Note

Henry Darger was born in Chicago in 1892. When he was nearly four, his mother died of an infection incurred after she had given birth to a baby girl who was then given up for adoption. Darger lived with his father, an impoverished tailor, until 1900, when he was placed in a Catholic institution for young boys, the Mission of Our Lady of Mercy. He attended public school during this period and was apparently highly intelligent, showing a particular interest in the Civil War. After evincing signs of behavioral problems, and the recommendation of several medical evaluations, however, he was sent to live in an asylum for “feeble-minded” children in Lincoln, Illinois. The institution housed fifteen hundred children, many of whom were severely developmentally disabled, and there is no doubt that Darger received only a rudimentary education during his tenure. After his father died in 1905, Darger made several attempts to escape from the asylum; in 1909, at age 17, he succeeded. He returned to Chicago, where he lived for the rest of his life, working more than fifty hours a week as a dishwasher, bandage roller, and janitor for local hospitals. He led a solitary life and attended mass several times each day at a Catholic church near his home. In 1930, he rented a large second-floor room on Chicago’s North Side, which he inhabited until the age of 80, when he became too weak to climb the stairs and moved to a home for the elderly run by the Little Sisters of the Poor - coincidentally the same mission where his father had spent his final years seven decades earlier. Within six months, on April 13, 1973, Henry Darger died at the age of 81.

Shortly after Darger had moved out of his room, his landlords, Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner, discovered hundreds of paintings, found images, and hand-bound volumes of Darger’s literary work among the clutter he had accumulated over the years. Nathan Lerner, an artist himself, recognized the merit of the works and took charge of the estate. Not long after its discovery, Darger’s work gained a unique stature among the world of “outsider art,” though some scholars have argued that it transcends all categorization. The American Folk Art Museum today owns the largest public collection of works by Henry Darger in the United States.


38 cubic feet

110 linear feet (114 containers)

Language of Materials



The Henry Darger Papers measure approximately 110 linear feet and range in date from 1909 to 1971. The collection holds the complete manuscripts of Darger’s books. His writings also include personal diaries and journals.

Source and Visual Material in the collection contain elements Darger used in his paintings and include clippings from coloring books, comic books, and newspapers. 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. Darger’s personal records include 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, bank account books), and assorted ephemera and handwritten notes.

The collection also contains Darger’s personal book collection, which includes several books from Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz series of novels. The collection contains a wide range of children’s books, including Heidi and Bobbsey Twin novels, illustrated Civil War publications, and a selection of religious books including bibles and assorted catechism, prayer and hymn books.


The collection is arranged into six series. The manuscripts are arranged as established in the catalogue raisonné of the “Writings of Henry J. Darger” (2002, MacGregor, John M.). See Appendix A for details regarding the original processing and assumed order of the manuscripts. Journals and diaries are arranged chronologically. Source material and visual material have been arranged by subject matter. Personal records are arranged alphabetically by subject matter.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

In 2000, through a combination of gift and purchase, the American Folk Art Museum acquired a substantial number of paintings, books, and archival material created by the self-taught artist Henry Darger. Thanks to a generous gift from Kiyoko and Nathan Lerner, Darger's personal archive, as found in the artist’s residence, was collected and donated to the museum from 2000 to 2001.

Existence and Location of Copies

All of Henry Darger's manuscripts were transferred to microfilm by Kiyoko Lerner in the 1990s. Ms. Lerner maintains the original microfilm and has donated a copy of the microfilm to the American Folk Art Museum.

Related Materials

Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, in Chicago has possession of a reproduction of Darger’s living and working space, which is on permanent display. Intuit’s Henry Darger Room Collection includes tracings, clippings from newspapers, magazines, comic books, cartoons, children’s books, coloring books, personal documents, and architectural elements, fixtures, and furnishings from Darger’s room that he rented from Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner is Chicago.

Additional Material

In addition to this finding aid, an excel document is available that provides detailed access to the collection through folder-level description. The document includes condition notes and transcriptions of notations from the collection’s boxes prior to processing. The folder descriptions in the document provide search capability to brief synopses of folder contents for all materials in the collection. It should be noted that, although the folder descriptions and note field contents are extensive, they are by no means exhaustive.

Appendices to this finding aid include:
(A) A catalogue raisonné from the “Writings of Henry J. Darger” (Henry Darger: In the Realms of the Unreal, by John M. MacGregor, New York: Delano Greenridge Editions, 2002);
(B) An inventory of framed tracings and sketches included in the Henry Darger Papers; and
(C) Transcribed text from John M. MacGregor’s notations as found on index cards in boxes containing Darger’s manuscripts.

Processing Information

John MacGregor, author of the catalogue raisonné “The Writings of Henry J. Darger” (see Henry Darger: In the Realms of the Unreal, by John M. MacGregor, New York: Delano Greenridge Editions, 2002), completed preliminary processing of the collection on site at Darger’s apartment, prior to its donation to the American Folk Art Museum by Kiyoko Lerner (Darger’s landlord) in February of 2001. The series structure of this collection reflects how the documentary material was initially sorted and arranged at that time.

Selections of the collection were microfilmed in the 1990s. The entire collection was processed, arranged, and described by Janine St. Germain and Eunice Liu of the Winthrop Group, Inc., in 2008, with funding provided by the Getty Foundation.

Revisions and updates to the finding aid were made in 2015 by Mimi Lester. At this time, the legacy finding aid, which was written in Microsoft Word and Excel, as well as FileMakerPro, was converted to ArchivesSpace.

A Guide to the Henry Darger Papers
Finding Aid by Janine St. Germain and Eunice Liu, Winthrop Group, Inc. With additional text provided by Brooke Davis Anderson, American Folk Art Museum
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Code for undetermined script
Language of description note
Funding for the processing of this collection was provided for by the Getty Foundation

Repository Details

Part of the American Folk Art Museum Archives Repository

47-29 32nd Place
Long Island City New York 11101 United States
(212) 595-9533