Let me tell you about Henry Darger, the man who wrote one of the most detailed and bizarre books in history.
Never heard of him? Me neither. At least, not until I happened to stumble upon his story a few weeks ago. Seems strange that someone who did something so grand could be so unknown, doesn’t it? But it’s true. In fact, you could even say that’s why Henry was so extraordinary.
He was a janitor. Nothing so special about that, but nothing so wrong with it, either. There is no correlation between who a person is and what that person does for a living. Einstein was a patent clerk. Faulkner a mailman. Henry Darger mopped floors.
An unassuming man. A quiet man. He never married, never really had friends. Just a regular guy living a regular life, one of the faceless masses that occupy so much of the world who are here for a short while and then gone forever.
Henry left in 1973.
There are no accounts of his funeral. I don’t know if anyone attended at all, though I like to think they did. I like to think there was a crowd huddled around his casket that day to bid him farewell.
It is an unfortunate fact of life that so many people are discovered to have been truly extraordinary only after their passing. Such was the case with Henry. A few days after his passing, his landlord went through his apartment to ready it for rent. What he found was astonishing.
What he found hidden among Henry’s possessions was a manuscript. Its title may give you a clue as to the story’s scope and magnitude:
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
Did you get that? If not, I can’t blame you. I had to read the title three times to even understand a little of it, and that doesn’t count the time I actually wrote it out.
The breadth and scope of Henry’s book went well beyond epic. The manuscript itself contained 15,000 pages. Over nine million words. Over 300 watercolor pictures coinciding with the story. Some of the illustrations were so large they measured ten feet wide.
A lifetime’s worth of work. Years upon years of solitary effort, hundreds of thousands of hours spent writing and painting, creating an entire saga of another world.
And all for no apparent reason. Not only did Henry Darger never seek any sort of publication for his work, he never told a soul about it. His book was his dream and his secret alone.
I’ve thought about Henry Darger a lot since I first read about him. Which, as change or fate would have it, just to happened to be the very week my newest novel released. A tough thing, that. You’d think it wouldn’t be, perhaps, but it is. No matter who an author is or how successful he or she may be or how many books or under his or her belt, the most important thing to us all is that our words matter. Matter to others, matter to the world. We want what we say and think and feel to count for something.
But Henry Darger reminds me that none of those things mean anything. In the end, we cannot account for how the world will judge our work, and so, in the end, the world’s opinion really doesn’t matter. Simple as that.
What matters—what counts—is that our words stir not the world, but ourselves. That they conjure in our own hearts and minds a kind of magic that neither the years nor the work can dull. The kind of magic that sustains us in our lonely times and gives our own private worlds meaning. The kind of magic that tinges even the life of a simple janitor with greatness.