PHILADELPHIA — Past the glass case containing sketches for his novel “Oliver Twist,” beyond the handwritten letter to his publisher about Little Nell, and away from the first published installments of “Hard Times” sits Charles Dickens’ pet bird.
The carefully preserved and stuffed raven named Grip — later the inspiration for Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem — is perhaps the quirkiest part of the Philadelphia public library’s valuable Dickens collection, now on display to celebrate his bicentennial.
The British author, who created unforgettable characters like Ebenezer Scrooge and David Copperfield, visited The City of Brotherly Love only twice. But two local benefactors bequeathed major collections of Dickensiana to the library, including 1,200 letters alone. And a rare statue of the author sits in a neighborhood park.
The library and Friends of Clark Park are now among numerous groups worldwide celebrating the novelist’s 200th birthday. He was born in Portsmouth, England, on Feb. 7, 1812.
“(It was) the ideal opportunity to share our literary treasures with the community and celebrate the fact that Dickens’ clever characters and engaging plotlines transcend time and are as relevant today as they were when he created them,” library director Siobhan Reardon said in a statement.
Among the items on view in the rare book department are first editions of his novels and original artwork for the tales; dozens of letters to colleagues; the desk where he left unfinished his 15th book, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” and an 1846 manuscript of the “Children’s New Testament” — Dickens’ own version of the life of Jesus, which he read to his children each Christmas.
Also on display, safe in a terrarium, stands Grip, the pet raven that Dickens preserved through taxidermy. Grip appeared as a minor character in Dickens’ book “Barnaby Rudge,” which Poe reviewed while living in Philadelphia. He criticized the bird’s small role, and penned “The Raven” four years later.
The library’s yearlong celebration also includes regular book discussions and readings by a Dickens impersonator, who won the role through an “American Idol”-style contest. A birthday party is also planned.
Dickens first visited Philadelphia in 1842 and received a rock-star welcome, shaking hands with fans for hours in a hotel lobby. When he returned in 1868, people camped out for tickets to his readings and scalpers commanded high prices for the sold-out performances, according to research by the Philadelphia chapter of the Dickens Fellowship.
His work remains popular today because Dickens is a great storyteller who uses energetic language to create unforgettable characters, said John O. Jordan, a literature professor who directs the Dickens Project at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
“Dickens writes about important social issues that are still nagging at us today — poverty, inequality in wealth, the abuse of children, issues of social class, aspiration to move beyond the station into which you were born, and the problems that arise from that,” Jordan said.
Through another twist of fate, Clark Park in west Philadelphia ended up with a statue of the writer. Washington Post founder Stilson Hutchins had commissioned the work in the 1880s but then backed out of the deal, leaving it orphaned until a local art association purchased it.
The sculpture by Frank Edwin Elwell features a seated Dickens on a pedestal and one of his most beloved characters — Little Nell, from “The Old Curiosity Shop” — standing below. Dickens had forbidden such memorials in his will, but one other full-sized statue stands in Sydney, Australia.
Bob Behr, a Philadelphia Dickens Fellowship member, has helped organize Clark Park’s annual birthday party for the author for about past 20 years.
Neighbors and Dickens enthusiasts come to listen to readings, watch performances, eat cake and sing “Happy Birthday” to the statue. It even attracts Dickens non-readers, said Behr, “because the whole thing is kind of a curiosity, and some of them end up reading the books later.”
This year’s party was held Sunday. Behr said part of the motivation for the celebration stems from the pride of stewardship of the rare sculpture.
But mostly, he said, “a lot of it has to do with people loving Dickens.”