The Portable Phonograph by Walter Van Tilburg Clark

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Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The story opens at the end of a desolate, late autumn day in the aftermath of a great war. The landscape is a vast, empty prairie, with nothing but the fading traces of battle to be seen. Civilization is dead, and few survivors have been reduced to a primitive state. In an earthen cave, four men huddle by a small peat fire; what wood there is must be saved for the coming, deadly winter. Doctor Jenkins is wrapping up four books from which he has been reading: the Bible, the works of William Shakespeare, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick: Or, The Whale (1851), and Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), the only books he has saved from the catastrophe. These books, he remarks, contain what was good in the old civilization, even though they could not save that civilization. He adds that he hopes that they will help the people of the next civilization to be strong enough that they will not fall behind when they become clever.

One of the other men is a writer, but he has nothing on which, or with which, to write. He says enviously that because Jenkins has the books, Jenkins will have a little soul left until he dies. That is, the books embody and give soul, although the meaning of the word is ambiguous. Jenkins grudgingly offers to let the others hear his phonograph, a windup machine. Because one of the guests is a musician, Jenkins says he will use one of his few steel needles, instead of the thorns he normally uses. Jenkins pulls out his records, a mere dozen, reads the titles, and then allows the youngest guest, the sick, coughing musician, to select the one that he wants to hear, a Claude Debussy nocturne. They listen raptly; for the others, the music calls up memories, but the musician hears only the music, the pure sound, pure beauty.

When it is over, the young musician departs into the darkness and cold outside abruptly, without saying anything; the others thank Jenkins. He promises them that next week he will play another record. After they have gone, Jenkins stands in the entrance of his cave, peering, listening; he hears what he had expected, a coughing, and thinks he sees a moving shadow. He goes back into his cave and, listening often, hides his records, phonograph, and books in a hole behind his makeshift bed. At the very last, he shifts his ragged bed to face the piece of canvas that is his door, lies down, and then feels, with his hand, a piece of lead pipe.