“The Portable Phonograph” Summary by Walter van Tilburg Clark

The Portable Phonograph Summary by Walter van Tilburg Clark
“The Portable Phonograph” Summary

“The Portable Phonograph” is a post-apocalyptic short story by Walter van Tilburg Clark, from his 1941 collection The Watchful Gods and Other Stories. It’s about four men, survivors of an apocalypse, who gather in a small, man-made cave above a creek to listen to a reading and some music, as one of them has managed to preserve a few items. Here’s a summary of “The Portable Phonograph”.

“The Portable Phonograph” Summary

Night falls on the prairie and it’s cold. The landscape is bomb-scarred—destroyed roads and fences, and ice-covered, muddy cavities in the ground, and no buildings. A flock of geese heads south and there’s the feel of snow in the air.

North of the damaged road is a small frozen creek. An opening is dug into the bank above it with a smoky fire inside. It’s burning peat; the salvaged remnants of wood need to be saved for the real cold. Four men sit cross-legged around the smoking peat.

In the cell are two old blankets on an earth bench and some tin utensils on the wall. The cell’s owner, an old gray-haired man, rewraps a few leather-bound books in burlap and ties it off. When he realized the end was coming, he saved these books—Shakespeare, the Bible, Moby Dick and the Divine Comedy. He puts the wrapped books in the niche near the utensils. The other men look with reverence at the volumes.

Two of the men comment on the value of the books and one wants paper to write on, but there isn’t any. The fourth man, sitting farthest from the fire, is sick. He coughs and says nothing.

The old man puts another block of peat on the fire and sits back down. One of them thanks him for the reading, and then they sit silently. The old man, Dr. Jenkins, knows they want to hear the phonograph. The two middle-aged men don’t reveal how much they want to hear it, but the younger sick man asks.

He goes to the back of his cell and returns with the phonograph. He’s been using thorns as needles but tonight, in honor of the young musician, he’s going to use one of the few remaining steel needles. The young man objects, but his host insists.

Jenkins only plays a record once a week so everything won’t wear out. He sorts through his collection, reading out the names. The man who wants to write asks for “New York” by Gershwin, but he’s overruled by the others.

The sick musician begs Jenkins to read the titles again. He leans back and hears the compositions in his mind, but it’s not clear. Jenkins has forgotten some too. The man who wants to write prefers Moby Dick.

“The Portable Phonograph” Summary, Cont’d

The musician picks a Debussy nocturne and the others approve. They watch with worshipful attention as Jenkins sets up the record. The musician draws back against the wall with his knees up and his face in his hands.

The first piano notes startle the men. They listen deeply and stay still, savoring every sound. It brings up memories in everyone but the young musician. At the end, his head falls back in agony and he trembles. The others sit silently until their breathing returns to normal.

Jenkins immediately lifts the needle but leaves the phonograph by the fire, in sight. The men understand and get up to go. The musician is the last to stand but he rushes out without saying anything. The others stop and express their thanks. Jenkins invites them back next week to hear “New York”.

He stands at the entrance looking and listening until he hears what he’s been waiting for—suppressed coughing down by the alders.

Jenkins lowers the piece of canvas he uses for a door and pegs it at the bottom. He packs up the records and phonograph and brings them to his bed of earth. He digs away some dirt against the wall which uncovers a board. It covers a deeper hole into which he places the phonograph and also his bundle of books. All the while, he watches the entrance and listens.

He arranges his blankets so he can lie facing the entrance. He puts more peat on the fire and stands watching the entrance a long time. He prays and gets into bed. Next to the wall, he has his hand on a piece of lead pipe.

I hope this summary of “The Portable Phonograph” was helpful.