Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg
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APRIL 9, 2012 10:09AM

A Grip-ping Visit

Rate: 29 Flag
grip official
 
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.
 
kids and grip
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.
 
illus br phiz
"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.
 
 library banners
 
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.
 
bust of pallas 
 
"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 main 
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.  
 
grip
 
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.
 
gerald dickens and grip 
Like Gerald Dickens, Charles Dickens' great-great grandson, who visited in January 2012.  To read more about Grip, and what it's like to be a Dickens descendant, check out this really cool article from the Washington Post
 
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,
 
grip and me
 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! 
 
archway 
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. 

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Oh I loved every word and photo of this post. I did not know about Grip but I can see why you wanted to see him. Perfect. Thank you!!!
Oh get a Grip. Heh, yes ravens are magnificent; one of very few non-primate tool users; curious and mischievous, it's no wonder these inspiring corvids were considered the symbol or embodiment of gods in many cultures.
When I lived in Vermont I looked out an eave window one sunset and saw two enormous ravens walking across our property, heads turned toward one another, as if in serious conversation.

I'll never forget them against those trees and the setting sun.


r.
What a great story and the Grip photos were delightful.
rated with love
You made me want to revisit Poe in one of your earlier posts. Now you've made me want to revisit Dickens. What a fun and enlightening post. Glad you got to make the trip.
:D well that is just neat, huh?! I would have gone to see him, too.
Did he ever say, "Nevermore?"
I Enjoyed this.

King Arthur LeChat read this with me. Fortunbately, I don't think he realized that ravens are birds. Maybe now His Nibs will be inspired to inspire me. You just never know.
Alysa, thanks for this wonderful account of your visit! I learned even more about Charles Dickens from what you have presented and didn't even know about Grip--preserved forever--until now!
James Russell Lowell:
'there comes Poe with his raven
like Barnaby Rudge
three fifths of him genius & two fifths pure fudge".....



Yeah, well..who’s ever heard of Mr. Lowell these days, and how many movies been made of his works, right?

I hope you spent a respectful time looking at the documents this unpleasant librarian supposes is her true avocation to preside over…looking reverent and serious, unlike your pure childlike wonder & joy at seeing old Grip.

Your pieces always make me do additional research,and I discovered that the raven has one of the biggest bird-brains…showing imitation & insight …making other animals do their work for them (calling wolves and coyotes to a carcass to get them to open it up for them…stealing each others’ cache of food…stealing shiny items to impress each other with….even having FUN, sliding down snowbanks …

Thanks for another fascinating quirky journey down the
imposing corridors of High Culture & Literature,
with your unique perspective..
Yes, the librarian did seem like a Dickensian character.

Someone should have told Poe that not everyone sees a raven as an omen.
Is that bird ... snowboarding???? What a fantastic, multimedia post. Now, this is what I'm talking about. That French birdie would love it here in Colorado. :)
A wonderful post and a Grip-ping tail! I was tagging right along with you the whole way, evermore!
R+
Wonderful, cheeky and informative. Now I know that if I'm going to visit, I will have to beef up on some obscure Dickens info and when a bitter intern asks if I'm here to see Grip, I'll say, "Gosh no! People really come to see something so common?"
I think that librarian's been munching on paint chips. You could have told her to "get a grip on the attitude." Which would've gotten you escorted out sooner.
Ignorant as I am, Dickens' pet raven was a total unknown to me. Nice post. I posted that crow snow-boarding on the Russian roof to Facebook - it's fantastic.
Great!! Wonderful!!
Loved this..love Dickens, my gave author ever...
Thanks for taking us along...First I have heard of Grip
I am with Zanelle I loved this so much and felt like I was there with you...
No excuse for eating paint chips! Dumb bird.
Grip looks rough in that picture and you look great. Amusing image of you and your father being 86ed from the rare books department.
Fine, funny, and informative post.
Love Dickens but didn't know about Grip. Love "The Raven," too and the pet parakeets I've had. Very informative and equally enjoyable, Alysa.
My favorite reading is the work of writers who themselves read. My favorites among the favorites are the works of people who read the same things that appeal to me, not surprisingly. Although I am sure that you have not lost any sleep worrying about it, I want to assure you that you are one of my favorites among favorites.

As for that grumpy old librarian . . . .
I have quite a few friends in Philadelphia and visit fairly frequently. You've given me another cool thing to do on my next visit. Especially since Lady Lucia has a particular affinity for ravens!
What an interesting adventure! Thanks for sharing it.
Now I have a grip on this and I thank you for it. Bravo!
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What a great informative piece, Alysa! I had no idea the connection between Dickens and Poe. So neat!
This is so cool! How did I not know about all that? I'm embarrassed to admit it, and I love Dickens. I love stuff like this, too, Alysa.
A great, informative read. For your next literary tourism adventure, did you know that you could walk into the children's reading room of the NY Public Library and there, in a glass case, are the original Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Roo, etc? I did not and just stumbled on them while taking my grandson for a visit to the library after a ride on the merry-go-round in Bryant Park. It was a very moving experience to see these bedraggled, much loved toys that belonged to Milne's son Christopher and inspired one of the all time great children's tales. R
Thanks for reading, guys!

Jonathan - What a beautiful story, beautifully put!

Chicken Maaan - Sadly, Grip did not speak to me while I was there. In terms of his vocabulary, apparently he could say a lot but I don't think "Nevermore" is one of the words (I seriously did look that up when I found out about Grip). Grip seemed to have been a cheerful fellow; I think the grimness associated with him is entirely because of Poe.

James - That Lowell quote always makes me laugh, though I love Poe. I was debating including it in the post, but I didn't want to sling more mud at one of my favorite literary personalities. Thanks for reading, and I'm glad you had fun looking up more about ravens - they really are amazing! Every time I read something about them, I'm astonished by how smart they are.

Belwether - You always know what to say!

Stim - Haha! I almost wish I'd told her that!

Brassawe - You are too, too kind. I have no idea how to respond to what you wrote, except to say thank you and I'm honored, and right back at you!

Eva - Yay! You guys definitely have to visit Grip the next time you're there!

Gerald - I did not know about that! I'll definitely have to check that out the next time I'm in New York!
I enjoyed the story of Grip for many reasons. For many years, I have been trying to capture a mobbed crow. It happens fairly often, around here, and if you manage to rescue it, it will be your friend for life. The crows around here are almost as large as ravens. I also found the picture frame amusing. Maybe I could make one, and put a fake bird, like they use as Christmas decorations, inside it.