What is "The Portable Phonograph" about?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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"The Portable Phonograph" is a short story by Walter Van Tillburg Clark.  The setting is the desolate nature of the world after some type of cataclysmic ending where little in terms of life and civilization exist.  While the story is written before the advent of nuclear war, one can perceive that something on this level has taken place  (1941, the year of its writing, was when the Second World War had reached its zenith in terms of world participation.)  The story's setting is a cave where a handful of people have saved four books from the previous civilization:  Dante, Shakespeare, the Bible, and Herman Melville.  These four books and a portable phonograph with a Debussy record are all that are saved.  The story raises interesting and powerful questions about art and its legacy, the transcendent appreciation of beauty, and the idea that human beings can be capable of greatness and elevated notions of the good as well as the baser notions of existence and pure, selfish evil.

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