The Portable Phonograph

by Walter Van Tilburg Clark

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The famous short story "The Portable Phonograph" by Walter van Tilburg Clark was originally published in the collection The Watchful Gods and Other Stories in 1950 and has been anthologized many times since. The story concerns four survivors of some sort of unspecified disaster who have come together in an old man's cave-like shelter for a literary reading and to listen to a piece of music on the old man's wind-up phonograph.

As the story opens, Clark describes the frozen landscape, shattered and decimated by war. The author then zooms in, almost as if it were a film, on the old man's shelter dug into a bank above a creek. It's like the burrow of an animal. The old man is burning peat instead of wood to keep warm, and he has but a few pieces of furniture and scraps of blankets in his shelter. Clark gives all these details so that the reader understands what a cold, stark, deprived world is left after humankind has all but obliterated itself.

The old man has just finished reading Shakespeare to the three men, and he reverently wraps up the volume together with the other three books he has saved from the disaster. The old man then takes out a portable wind-up phonograph and plays his guests a piece of music. The old man seems to be a sort of oracle, and people come to him to remember the books and music that used to be common in the society that is now gone forever. It's obvious that these bits of past culture that the old man has saved are of great value, not only to himself, but also to the people who come to him to listen and remember. In the end, after his guests have left, the old man is afraid that they will come back and steal his treasures, so he hides the phonograph and the books. He also keeps a lead pipe beside him in bed so that if necessary he can fight off intruders.

In this poignant yet tragic story, Clarke shows his readers what would really be important after an overwhelming disaster. Things like gold, jewelry, and currency would be worthless, but treasures that stir the mind and heart such as books and music would be the items of true value.

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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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