“Grip was not a nice bird,” LaSalle professor Edward Pettit says of the 170-year-old stuffed raven at the Free Library of Philadelphia. “It was very unpleasant toward the children.” Adds Janine Pollock, head of the rare books department at the library, “It was originally in the house, but it was biting the kids, so they had to put him out in the carriage house.”Why, then, would this ornery raven that bit children in the early 1840s be found in a glass case in a dimly lit corner of the Free Library today? Well, Grip wasn’t just any old bird. He was perhaps the most important literary bird of modern times. Grip was owned by the original literary rock star of the English-speaking world, Charles Dickens, and is found in his book Barnaby Rudge.
Barnaby Rudge was a book that Dickens wrote in serialized form in 1841 about an idiot named Barnaby and his pet raven, Grip. (I’ve never read it, but I’ve read several of Dickens’s other works, so I’m going to guess it’s about sad poor people).
“When Dickens was writing Barnaby Rudge, he wanted to study the behavior of a raven, so he picked him up as pet,” says Pollock.
Of course that doesn’t explain what this dead bird is doing in the City of Brotherly Love. Well, Grip didn’t only inspire one literary virtuoso. He also indirectly inspired the masterpiece of a mad genius who spent his most productive years here in Philadelphia.
“There are several things that inspired (Edgar Allan Poe’s) The Raven, and the raven in Barnaby Rudge is one of them,” says Pettit, who in addition to being a professor at LaSalle is a literary historian who is currently working on a book about how Philadelphia shaped Poe’s writing style.
“He probably even read it in the Inquirer, because that’s where it was serialized first.”
Poe wrote a review of the book for Graham’s Magazine in Philadelphia in 1842. In his review, he wrote some words that make it seem like Dickens’s bird might have planted a seed in his mind: “The raven, too, intensely amusing as it is, might have been … prophetically heard in the course of the drama.”
So can we be sure that the Barnaby Rudge raven inspired The Raven? Says Pettit, flatly, “Poe knew about it. He wrote about it. And there’s a talking raven in it. So the link seems fairly obvious to me.”
Fittingly, for a bird that inspired an author who was fascinated with dying young, Grip wasn’t long for this world. While living in the carriage house, he ate some lead paint and died. Dickens had him stuffed, but even in death he continued to inspire. Mr. Venus, the taxidermist in Dickens’s novel Our Mutual Friend, is believed to be based on the taxidermist who stuffed Grip.* The stuffed bird was sold at an auction following Dickens’s death, and bounced around several private collections before coming into the hands of Colonel Richard Gimbel, of the department store family. Gimbel was a tremendous Poe and Dickens enthusiast, and upon his death he bequeathed the bird to the Free Library.
“When I first came to work here, I thought it was kind of weird,” says Pollock. “But it is sort a unique moment in literature when these two great writers are sort of thinking about the same thing. You think about how much the two men were looking at each other’s work. It’s almost a collaboration without them realizing it.”
Adds Pettit, “I love that it’s there. If there can be a kind of spiritual connection, it’s there. The meaning of it carries some kind of extra resonance.”
If you’d like to lay eyes on the bird that inspired two of the greatest authors of the 19th century, it can be seen at the Free Library from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., where it is on display in the Rare Books Collection. Quite wonderfully, it is housed in a part of the library where people ponder over quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore.
*This freaking bird inspired more art than Edie Sedgwick!