QUOTH THE RAVEN, “Nevermore.”
So says Edgar Allan Poe anyway. But what does “Nevermore” sound like with a Philly accent?
Because the raven — yes, that raven — that inspired Poe’s most famous work and the title of the new John Cusack-starring thriller — resides right here in town. At the Rare Book Department in the Central branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, to be exact. Despite being an English bird by birth, the raven has resided at the library since 1971, when Col. Richard Gimbel, of the famed department-store dynasty, bequeathed the raven to the library.
The raven has surely picked up some of our linguistic tics in the meantime.
Despite serving as the inspiration for Poe’s poem, the raven actually belonged to writer Charles Dickens, who named his beloved pet Grip.
Janine Pollock, head of the Rare Book Department at the Free Library, said Dickens was fascinated by Grip’s behavior and studied his pet, which he kept in the stables.
“Dickens said [Grip] slept on horseback,” Pollock said. “He was impressed with how smart and aggressive the bird was.”
“[Dickens’] children especially loved Grip. He could talk. Ravens can talk; they’re like parrots,” said Edward G. Pettit, a professor at La Salle University, literary provocateur and author of the book Edgar Allan Poe in Philadelphia (out in September from the History Press). “It’s unusual they liked him so much because he was apparently a miserable bird. But he could speak, and everyone got a great kick out of this.”
When Grip died, possibly from eating lead paint, according to Pollock, Dickens had him stuffed.
Dickens decided to immortalize his beloved Grip in the novel Barnaby Rudge, about a man falsely accused of leading anti-Catholic rioters in 1780s England. Grip appears as the title character’s companion.
Grip was auctioned off with many of Dickens’ other possessions after his death in 1870, eventually landing in the collection of Gimbel, a World War II aviator.
“[Gimbel] was really fanatical about Dickens,” Pollock said. But Gimbel had a jonesin’ for Poe, too. “He actually owned the Poe house at 7th and Spring Garden,” Pollock said. When Gimbel died, he willed his Dickens collection to Yale University, but gave Grip to the Free Library because of its extensive Poe collection, which includes the only manuscript of The Raven in Poe’s handwriting, a portrait of Poe’s mother and Poe’s first appearance in every journal for which he wrote, among other rarities.
Grip is on view as part of the library’s yearlong Dickens Exhibition and can be seen Monday through Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
So what does this have to do with our man Poe?
“There’s no documentation this was the inspiration, but it’s pretty clear to me,” said Pettit.
Both ravens share certain similarities, namely that they can talk. Poe’s raven’s favorite word is “Nevermore”; Dickens’ raven prefers “Nobody,” which he repeats twice.
Poe was aware of Dickens’ novel and reviewed Barnaby Rudge while living in Philadelphia. Pettit figures Poe read Barnaby Rudge when it was serialized in what was then called the Pennsylvania Inquirer.
In his review, Poe singles out the use of Grip. “The raven, too, intensely amusing as it is, might have been made, more than we now see it, a portion of the conception of the fantastic Barnaby. Its croakings might have been prophetically heard in the course of the drama,” Poe wrote.
(Pettit translated for us: “It’s pretty good the way you have him as a character in the novel, but you could have used him more. You could have used the raven as a prophet to let us really know what’s happening.”)
When Dickens came to Philly in 1842, he met with Poe, who lived in town from 1838 to 1844. “He [Poe] wrote the greatest stuff he ever wrote when he was in Philadelphia,” Pettit said.
Pettit points to the first literary connection linking Grip with Poe’s “Raven”: James Russell Lowell, who in 1848 penned A Fable for Critics, a book-length poem satirizing the leading writers of his time, wrote: “There comes Poe, with his raven, like Barnaby Rudge, / Three-fifths of him genius and two-fifths sheer fudge.” n
Contact Molly Eichel at 215-854-5909 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @mollyeichel. Read her blog posts at philly.com/entertainment.