Last Updated September 6, 2023.
Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s story “The Portable Phonograph” opens at sunset and establishes a dark and desolate setting. Readers are told that the clouds blacken the autumn sky “like threats,” and everything is cold. The air is filled with a “sensation of torment.” It is clear that a catastrophic war has occurred, leaving the world broken and scarred, but this event is never fully explained. Only its aftermath is evident. Pits scar the landscape, created by huge bombs, and the muddy, frozen roads are rutted from tanks. The narrative then describes an icy creek that flows toward a sort of cave containing a small red peat fire (real wood must be preserved for the coming winter, which is expected to be a great deal colder than the current season).
Four men sit around the fire, and one is so old that he seems like a “prehistoric priest” performing some ritual as he wraps up his books; he is the one who lives in this small cave. He tells the others that, once he realized what was happening to the world, he decided to take “this.” By this, he is referring to his volumes of the collected works of William Shakespeare, the Bible, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, and Dante’s The Divine Comedy. He says that he saved what he loved: “the soul of what was good in us here.” He expresses his hope that these books will help the people who come next.
Two of the other men speak, including one who is a writer but has nothing on or with which to write, but the fourth man does not. He coughs a lot, though he is young. The old man, called Dr. Jenkins, seems to have been reading to the group. When no one says anything else, he realizes that they want to hear his phonograph—the young man especially.
Dr. Jenkins says that he has been using thorns as needles, but because the young man, a musician, is there, he will use a real steel needle to play the record tonight. He says that he only plays a record once a week in order to preserve his collection for as long as possible. Dr. Jenkins reads the dozen different records’ information aloud, and the young musician is allowed to choose the one to which they will listen. When the piece, a nocturne by Claude Debussy, is finished, Dr. Jenkins tells the men to return in a week to listen to another record.
After the men leave, Dr. Jenkins—who readers, by now, realize to be a cultured and learned man—hears coughing and believes he sees a shadow moving. He then secures his phonograph as best he can, hiding it in the recesses of his cave. He hides his books in a similar manner. Then he lies down facing the entrance to his home and adds to the fire, creating more light. Before he falls asleep, he feels the “comfortable piece of lead pipe” that he has hidden within his bed, ready to defend himself and his possessions.