02 August 2011

Henry Darger as L. Frank Baum’s Literary Heir?

Earlier this year Steve Ahlquist, principal creator of the early-1990s Oz Squad comics, wrote at Forces of Geek about “outsider artist” Henry Darger as L. Frank Baum’s true literary heir.

Baum’s Oz books certainly inspired Darger (1892-1973). The photo at right (courtesy of Some Girls Wander) shows that at his death Darger owned four Baum Oz books and one by Ruth Plumly Thompson, plus some more that might be missing their spines.

Darger might even have been part of Baum’s original audience, having grown up in Chicago around the turn of the last century. However, he also had a poor childhood, ending in orphans’ homes, so he might not have been able to enjoy much reading.

Ahlquist writes:
When Baum died, the mantel of “Royal Historian of Oz” was passed to Ruth Plumly Thompson, a capable if uninspired writer too often given to formula and romance. Though she wrote under the L. Frank Baum byline [note: for only one book, The Royal Book of Oz], the stories she contributed to the series never lived up to the original 14 novels Baum produced. The magic, it seems, had gone out of Oz.

But not out of Darger. While Baum's publisher, Reilly and Lee, sought to promulgate the fiction that Ruth Plumly Thompson was somehow the Royal Historian, in truth that job would fall to Henry Darger. His dark visions charted the exploits of a new and more dangerous space in the meme world of children’s literature. No longer were we in the safe realms of children’s fantasy, we were in the realms of the unreal, where fantasy and horror abutted one another uneasily.

Darger wrote of Child slavery, child murder, and explored his own confusion about, violence, sex, identity, good and evil.
I think that this essay, in the quest for a provocative formulation, gives too much credit to Darger’s crazy fantasies. While Baum’s plotting could be haphazard, he at least had plots. Darger’s sprawling epic has little coherence and two endings. Baum’s strength was in creating characters and showing how they interact. Darger seems to have treated all his characters as nearly interchangeable little bodies, without personalities. He’s recognized primarily as a visual artist, even if he saw himself as illustrating a story. Most important, Baum knew he was writing for an audience of children.

As for sex, there’s much more of an undercurrent of that in Thompson’s Oz books than in Baum’s.

Also at Forces of Geek in March, Ahlquist shared material on his planned prequel to Oz Squad, and how he saw his version of Ozian history building on Baum’s series:
Dorothy and Ozma named their son Ozzy, and one day perhaps he will become King Ozzy I.

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