Charles Dickens’s Cat Paw Letter Opener / The End of History Beer

Charles Dickens’s letter opener with the paw of his cat, Bob, 1862, New York Public Library, Berg Collection

Charles Dickens was fascinated by taxidermy. After visiting a shop with a friend, he wrote a taxidermist into his novel Our Mutual Friend; “Mr. Venus” stands out as a maker and a connection to life and energy in a novel concerned with dust and dying. Dickens had some animals stuffed, including pets like his famous raven Grip, the inspiration for Poe’s poetic bird. But when his favorite cat died, the deaf cat who followed him everywhere, who snuffed out candles to get some attention, Dickens had the cat’s paw made into a letter opener. This young cat was the son of Williamena (named after Shakespeare until she had kittens), and Dickens’s daughter has said in her own book, “as he was quite deaf, [he] was left unnamed, and became known by the servants as ‘the master’s cat.’” But somewhere along the way, according to the chronology and the inscription on the letter-opener, he seems to have been called “Bob.”

It wasn’t unusual in the nineteenth century to turn animals in to functional objects like lamps, hardened horse-hoof inkwells, bird hats, beetle dresses. It wasn’t unusual to stuff and memorialize your pet in the nineteenth century, the height of pet-keeping. But the taxidermied cat paw stands out in its tactile softness and emotional tenderness. Most often, as popular as it was in the nineteenth century, taxidermy was consumed visually only, displayed in glass cases or crowded cabinets. With Bob’s paw, Dickens created an object meant to be held daily.

150 years later, in 2010, the brewers and self-described “equity punks” BrewDog out of Aberdeen Scotland created a limited edition beer bottled in roadkill squirrels and stoats. The limited number sold out immediately at £500-£700 a bottle. BrewDog called this brew The End of History beer, after Francis Fukuyama’s economic tome of the same title: “This is to beer what democracy is to history,” the founders say, “Fukuyama defined history as the evolution of the political system… The beer is the…end point of our research into how far [we] can push the boundaries of extreme brewing, the end of beer.” Taxidermy here mediates as signifier of the extreme, a disruption to convention. But the dead animals also communicate past-present-future – an impossibility like the end of history – in a way other forms could not.

BrewDogs say on their website, “The striking packaging was created by a very talented taxidermist and all the animals used were roadkill.” This “already-dead”-ness invokes contemporary conceptual taxidermy and repair art even if BrewDog does not make that their explicit project. It repurposes; it forces confrontation with the collateral damage of modern life, even as it imagines a hybridization that would repair nature with cyborg mechanics (see a beautiful example in Lisa Black’s piece Fixed Fawn).

And immediately the use of roadkill evokes the untouchable, but here, like Dickens’s paw, in a form that must be held. The beer is “meant to be drank in small servings whilst exuding an endearing pseudo vigilance and reverence for Mr. Stoat,” BrewDog says. Bottling punk frontier-spirited beer in these Walter-Potter-esque animal characters is quirky, yes. But once the animal’s object-narrative is its roadkill identity, it is also directly a reminder of the violence that comes from the frontiers we make. We carry nature – reformed? damaged? repaired? might we get to choose? – into a new frontier as we pour, drink, consume fellowship, consume spectacle, consume new sensation after new sensation.

The intense and contentious intellectual Thomas Carlyle famously had a soundproof room built to shut out the noise of Victorian life. The writer John Picker has described a generalized search for silence in the midst of constant “urban noise” in the nineteenth century. A call for spaces of silence. Perhaps that is one part of the story of Victorian desire for taxidermy. Not only wildness possessed, but wildness and utter silence and stillness in one space. And we long for the same, to bring stillness in as we push out in our making. Standing outside of both the cluttered home curio cabinet and the untouchable glass museum case, these two taxidermied objects 150 years apart let us hold those contradictions in our hands.

Fascinated as he was by taxidermy, Dickens, perhaps, did not want to see his favorite cat lifelike. And so he created a functional memory, and a private sensation buffered him from public correspondence. Like The End of History beer, the taxidermied cat paw must be held, it mediates consumption – of mail, of information, of the outside and the noise of living.

BrewDog does not know the whereabouts of all twenty-five The End of History beers but were able to tell me that one is at a museum in Tasmania and one is in a UK bottle shop on the top shelf in a glass cabinet. I found one opened ceremoniously at the 2010 Beer Bloggers’ Conference for a collaborative “sipping panel.” And Dickens’s cat paw is now at the New York Public Library, in a glass case, in the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

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Like The End of History beer, the taxidermied cat paw must be held, it mediates consumption – of mail, of information, of the outside and the noise of living.