Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Walter Van Tilburg Clark: August 3, 1909--November 10, 1971

Walter Van Tilburg Clark unfortunately published very few works: three novels, about ten short stories, and some poetry. It is my opinion that it is this limited output that keeps him from being considered among the United State's best writers. I guess I'm starting to sound like a broken record as I brought up this issue in my post of August 3, 2009.

Aside from The Ox-Bow Incident, probably his most famous work, another work, a short story, has also achieved some limited fame. It can be found in introductory literature texts and frequently in SF collections that focus on post-holocaust stories. It is "The Portable Phonograph." I suspect many have read it and never realized that it was written by the author of The Ox-Bow Incident.

It is one of three of my favorite short stories that are set in a post-holocaust world. The other two are Theodore Sturgeon's "Thunder and Roses" (see January 16, 2010) " and Ray Bradbury's "There Will Come Soft Rains" (see August 2, 2010). All three are anti-war stories, but they protest indirectly. They do not directly come out against war, especially nuclear war, but they quietly present possible outcomes.

Clark begins the story quietly:

The red sunset, with narrow, black cloud strips like threats across it, lay on the curved horizon of the prairie. The air was still and cold, and in it settled the mute darkness and greater cold of night. High in the air there was wind, for through the veil of the dusk, the clouds could be seen gliding rapidly south and changing shapes.

He gradually brings into his description of the sunset some disquieting elements.

A sensation of torment, of two-sided, unpredictable nature, arose from the stillness of the earth air beneath the violence of the upper air. Out of the sunset, through the dead , matted grass and isolated weed stalks of the prairie, crept the narrow and deeply rutted remains of a road. In the road, in places, there were crusts of shallow, brittle ice. There were little islands of an old oiled pavement in the road too, but most of it was mud, now frozen rigid.

Up to this point, we might just be looking at a typical late autumn landscape and a road that no longer goes anywhere, but Clark then shows us that, sadly, there is more, much more wrong here.

The frozen mud still bore the toothed impress of great tanks, and a wanderer on the neighboring undulations might have stumbled, in this light, into large, partially filled-in and weed-grown cavities, their banks channeled and beginning to spread into bad lands. These pits were such as might have been made by falling meteors, but they were not. They were the scars of gigantic bombs, their rawness already made a little natural by rain, seed and time. Along the road there were rakish remnants of fence. There was also, just visible, one portion of tangled and multiple barbed wire still erect, behind which was a shelving ditch with small caves, now very quiet and empty, at intervals in its back wall. Otherwise there was no structure or remnant of a structure visible over the dome of the darkling earth, but only, in sheltered hollows, the darker shadows of young trees trying again.

the toothed impress of great tanks . . . scars of gigantic bombs . . . the darker shadows of young trees trying again--I'm not sure which of those three seems the most ominous.

But, there is life here:

The creek was already silent under ice. Into the bank above it was dug a sort of cell, with a single opening, like the mouth of a mine tunnel. Within the cell there was a little red of fire, which showed dully through the opening like a reflection or a deception of the imagination. The light came from the chary burning of four blocks of poorly aged peat, which gave off a petty warmth and much acrid smoke.

Four men sit around the smoldering peat. Three are invited. The host, once a week, gives a reading from one of the four books he has managed to save, and more rarely, plays a record on his portable windup phonograph. This is what brings the four of them together: the beauty of the works he has saved--the Bible, Shakespeare, Moby Dick, and The Divine Comedy. The record that was selected that evening was one of Debussy's nocturnes. At the end, the three quietly leave, as he tells them to come again next week, when he will play Gershwin's "New York."

It's a simple little story that might encourage us by showing that, in spite of everything, people in the midst of horror can be brought together and gain solace from sharing the greatest creations of the human mind. However, the story hasn't ended yet.

After they had left, the host went to the entrance of the cave. He could hear the suppressed coughing of one of his recent visitors, but "It was not nearby, however. He believed that down against the pale alders he could see the moving shadow."

He reenters the cave and digs out a section of the wall and places the books, phonograph, and records inside. He covers it up.

He also changed his blankets, and the grass-stuffed sack which served as a pillow, so that he could lie facing the entrance . . .On the inside of the bed, next the wall, he could feel with his hand, the comfortable piece of lead pipe.

What hath war wrought?


  1. I found some info on the story here:


    It said that the story was written in 1942, pre-atomic bomb and at the beginning of the U.S. WWII involvement. Wow. I'd never have guessed that.

    Just wanted you to clarify something for me. Does the ending suggest that one of the visitors was going to try to return and steal those things from him? Does it show that a usurping spirit still continues, even in that environment?

  2. Cheryl,

    Thanks for the information about the timing of the story. The copyright date that I have is 1950, but it's for the collection and not for the individual stories. The destruction depicted could have been from nuclear bombs or conventional bombs.

    I think so, or at least he feared one might return. He did go out to see where the others were and he did spend some time hiding his treasures and he did have that "comfortable piece of lead pipe."

    For a short period of time, after I have read this story, I always pause when I slip a CD into the player. One day I will get a CD or CDs with Debussy's nocturnes to see if I can figure out which one is being played.