My recent trip to the US was a time to see family and old friends, a time to reconnect with my past, a time to eat food I've missed and go to places I love. This time around, I figured it might also be the occasion to strike something off my bucket list - namely, a visit to a stuffed bird.
But not just any stuffed bird: this one is a literary superstar.
Grip the raven was a beloved pet of Charles Dickens, who apparently had a thing for ravens, and owned a few during his life. Not surprising, since they're very smart birds who are amusing to watch.
A modern-day example
According to my research, Grip could say words and phrases, and even pop open a bottle of champagne. Though Dickens mentioned that Grip often bit their ankles, the Dickens children appreciated him enough to ask their father to make him a character in one of his books.
The Eldest Children of Charles Dickens with their pet Raven "Grip", 1841, by Daniel Maclise (image source)
And that's where Grip began his ascent into stardom.
The raven was more or less cast as himself in Dickens' novel Barnaby Rudge, published in serial form in 1840-1841. Even his name stayed the same.
"Barnaby in Newgate", illustration by Hablot Knight Brown (Phiz) (image source
It's cool enough for a pet to inspire one bestselling novel that's still appreciated nearly two centuries after it was written, but Grip's influence didn't stop there.
Dickens was as hugely popular in America as he was in Great Britain, and whenever a book of his was published, any self-respecting periodical would include a review of it. Unlike Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe didn't gain financial success from his writing, and so the poet and short-story author was also working as a literary critic for Graham's Magazine when Barnaby Rudge appeared. Poe's critique of the book is notable for fans today because he wrote that he would have liked to see the raven used in a more prophetic way.
Grip made a big impression on him. A few years later, in 1845, Poe published his most famous poem: "The Raven".
Sadly, Grip wouldn't live to savor his literary musedom. In March 1841, he died, probably as a result of having eaten paint chips (which doesn't sound very smart at all, but of course, how could he have known about lead and such?) when Dickens' house was being renovated. Dickens was moved by his pet's death. In a letter to Daniel Maclise (the artist who had done the portrait of some of the children with Grip, pictured above), he described the bird's final moments, as only he could:
On the clock striking twelve he appeared slightly agitated, but he soon recovered, walked twice or thrice along the coach house, stopped to bark, staggered, exclaimed “Halloa old girl! (his favorite expression) and died.He behaved throughout with a decent fortitude, equanimity, and self-possession, which cannot be too much admired.... The children seem rather glad of it. He bit their ankles but that was play.
You can read the whole letter, which is full of intriguing and charming details, here
(scroll down to page 2).
Grip had been immortalized in literary works by two great 19th century authors. But Dickens also decided to have his beloved pet stuffed. He reportedly kept Grip's body in its display near his desk, until his own death in 1870.
Grip was eventually put up for auction, where he was purchased by Colonel Richard A. Gimbel, a huge Edgar Allan Poe fan. Gimbel bequested the bird to the Philadelphia Free Library
, which has one of the greatest collections of Poe manuscripts and related objects in the world - including the only known copy of "The Raven" handwritten by Poe. Since 1971, Grip has been on display in the library's Rare Books Department.
I don't remember exactly how I found out about Grip, but when I did, I knew I had to see him in person. I contacted the Philadelphia Free Library and learned two very interesting things:
1. The librarians refer to Grip as if he's a live pet, saying things like, "You can visit Grip" - instead of "Dickens' raven is on display at..."
2. Despite the intimidating-sounding "Rare Books Department", it's actually quite easy to find and see Grip. You go to an upper floor of the library. There are glass doors marked "Rare Books Department", and a buzzer, above which is written a warning that you may have to wait a few minutes, since the librarian's office is on the other side of the building.
2a. When you get inside, you see that the office isn't really across the building; I guess the librarians just don't want to have to rush to the door.
I told my father about my dream of seeing Grip, and though it seemed kind of crazy to him to travel about 2 hours to see a stuffed bird, he was game. We decided to make it an overnight visit, which turned out to be a very good thing, since I then found out the Philadelphia Museum of Art was hosting an exhibit called Van Gogh Up Close
. The idea of seeing works I hadn't seen before by my all-time favorite visual artist, PLUS Grip, made me super-excited.
On Tuesday, March 20, we set out for Philadelphia. When we arrived at the Library, there were banners outside announcing exhibits in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Dickens' birthday. A bust of Dickens alternated with an image of Grip himself, under each letter of the author's name.
At the Rare Books Department, we rang the buzzer and waited. After about a minute, a librarian arrived and opened the doors. "Hi!" I said brightly, "We're here to see Grip!"
She very nearly rolled her eyes. "Oh, all right. Come in."
Behind her, I caught sight of an enormous "bust of Pallas" with a sculpted raven on top, and I smiled. The librarian didn't smile back. After telling us to put all bags and other items in a closet, she asked us to follow her.
"You know," she said, as we walked down the long, book-lined corridors, "We do have some rare Dickens manuscripts and memorabilia on display, in honor of the Dickens bicentennial, but of course, no one ever looks at that. They just want to see Grip."
I was surprised at how bitter she sounded. Then again, I guess if you took a job in the Rare Books Department and were doing some sort of highly-specialized librarian stuff, and had it interrupted all the time by people coming to see a dead bird in your keeping, it might get old after a while. I assured her that I had heard about the Dickens display and was excited to see that, too ("-- but not as excited as I am to see Grip!" - I made sure not to add.).
My father asked if we were allowed to take pictures, and the librarian, her voice glummer than ever, said, "You can try. But you probably won't get a good photograph because of reflections on the glass."
And then, there we were, approaching the display case I'd seen online so many times. I gave a happy little laugh. "I'll be in my office," the librarian remarked emotionlessly. "Tell me when you want to leave and I'll open the door for you."
Grip. She was right about the glass....
It was strange to come face to face with Grip. On the one hand, the whole experience is so bizarre and offbeat - that was a lot of what appealed to me about it. On the other, Grip was a living, intelligent being, and is a physical connection to another time.
I felt a little conflicted: delighted and sort of melancholy, all at once. Still, it's going to sound weird, but I get the impression that Grip is happy where he is today, admired by many.
My father and I took some pictures, then we dutifully -- and interestedly, all the same -- gazed into the display tables set up in a long line through the rooms of the Rare Book Department. Inside were first editions of Dickens' novels, autographed books, letters written by the author, and several objects, including some that were on the desk where Dickens created his works.
The desk where Dickens wrote is also in the library's permanent collection. When I asked the librarian about it, she had the same reaction she'd had to Grip. "Yes, the desk is here," she intoned, adding, "Everyone comes here to see that and Grip." But, she informed me, that part of the library was already closed for the day. So if you want to see both Grip and the desk, you should probably check out the Library's website
for information about when they can be viewed. I was disappointed I didn't get to see the desk - which apparently is in a beautifully furnished room that once was the library of donor and Dickens fan William Elkins (Elkins gave the Philadelphia Free Library everything from his personal library, even the carpets) - but then again, it gives me a reason to come back.
One last quick picture with Grip,
I look rough, but Grip looks great!
and my father and I were escorted out of the Rare Books Department. (That sounds like we were exiled from it in disgrace, but you know what I mean.) On the elevator ride to the ground floor, it occurred to me that the bitter librarian had been a perfect host, just as unexpected, eccentric and sort of comical as a Dickens character!
An archway on the library's ground floor leads to an exhibit of illustrations from Dickens' work. A bust of the author, and Grip, have the place of honor at the top.