January 29

1845 — First publication of “The Raven”

 

In his more ambitious days, Lowell Jacobs had been an expert on the works of Edgar Allan Poe.  His academic career hit an embarrassing snag before he was able to secure university employment, and his life went in other directions.

His love for Poe stayed with him through different careers.  As a Baltimore bookseller, he reserved a special section for grotesque and arabesque tales — rare editions on the highest shelf, with recent paperbacks in easier reach, alongside Poe postcards, action figures, and finger-puppets.  After several years’ work in a local coffee franchise, he encouraged the creation of an E. A. Poe blend — a dark roast with a bitter aftertaste, earning few repeat customers.

In his later years, Lowell and his wife opened a pet store in Essex.  The “store cat” was a black stray named Pluto (with, fortunately, both eyes).  Near the register hung a large brass cage with a “Not For Sale” sign beneath the latched door.  The large black mynah inside wasn’t exactly a raven, but to amuse himself and the store’s patrons, Lowell had painstakingly taught the bird the appropriate one-word phrase.

“Do you think our team will win the Superbowl again, Edgar?” he’d say as he rang up a bag of cat litter.

“Nevermore!”

And the customer would burst into spontaneous laughter at the bird’s rude pessimism.

Once, his wife (who, fortunately, was not named Lenore) knocked over a display of chew toys, saying “When will I ever learn?”

When the bird responded, Lowell quipped, “Edgar knows you better than you know yourself.”

The mynah bird could mimic other sounds, including beeps of the cash register and the unconscious coughs and throat-clearing Lowell made throughout the workday.  But the envoy line from Poe’s “The Raven” was the most frequent outburst.

Out of habit, Lowell phrased many remarks as questions in hopes of setting Edgar up for a punchline — talking about, for example, the weather (“Will this rain ever clear up?”), politics (“When will we stop fighting these wars?”) or current events (“When will this strange flu season end?”).

Then the Red Death visited the world, wiping out the human population in a matter of days.  Locked in his cage, his food supply quickly dwindling, Edgar the bird offered the last living sounds:  the beeps of cash-register commerce, a choking human cough, and a repeating, appropriate answer to every unasked question about existence.