The Public Burning
Robert Coover, William H. Gass
Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub
Author note: William H. Gass (Introduction)
Publish Year note: First published 1977
The Public Burning, Robert Coover's third novel, was published in 1977. It is an account of the events leading to the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. An uncharacteristically human caricature of Richard Nixon serves as protagonist and narrator for the primary continuity.
The novel satirizes the Cold War politics of Joseph McCarthy by portraying "The Phantom" as the embodiment of global Communism and everything that threatens the American way of life—a vague, terrifying, and omnipresent enemy. The ugly side of the American psyche this draws out is characterized by an incarnation of Uncle Sam who unleashes a torrent of interminable verbosity in a folksy, foul-mouthed style whenever he appears. The New York Times and Time Magazine figure centrally as symbols of institutional failure not only to question whether the truth was a victim in this hyperpoliticized trial but also whether the official narrative was in fact a bunch of political lies.
Understandably, Coover experienced difficulty finding a publisher due to legal concerns over the unflattering depiction of Richard Nixon. Details of the publication history can be found in the novel's introduction.
Despite these difficulties, this novel has received a large amount of critical attention. It has been called “perhaps the most complete replenishment of the language since Whitman and (in a different way) Mark Twain … no writer since Melville has dived so deeply and fearlessly into this collective American ream as Coover has in this novel.”
and Rosenberg was skinny like Hiss, but Greenglass lacked Whittaker’s wit and vocabulary—Checkers was probably brighter—and Rosenberg was poor, like me, thick-tongued, and dressed ten years behind the times. Hiss had been the millionaire gone sour in the Horatio Alger novels, the evil nephew trying to con his rich uncle out of his cousin’s inheritance, the wily traitor in a plain respectable man’s troubled business. Rosenberg, on the other hand, had been born into a true Horatio Alger family,
Kaufman’s way of protecting himself from a mistrial and assuring the prosecutor of a jury willing to fudge a little, but it showed Kaufman knew what the case would ultimately rest on. Saypol, free from such scruples, could throw the whole weight of the FBI legend against these ghetto outcasts: “There came a day, however, that a vigilant Federal Bureau of Investigation broke through the darkness of this insidious business…” He heaped praises on the FBI. So did Kaufman. So did the President, the
Hair-Buyer Hamilton, Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne, and Lord Cornwallis, strutting like peacocks! George Washington organizes his forces and a full-scale free-for-all breaks out! Rhetoric is flying through the air like musket fire: “The die is now cast,” bellows Churchill, popping his buttons with excitement and looking for all the world like John Bull himself, “the Colonies must either submit or triumph!” “There’s something absurd in supposin’ a Continent to be perpetually governed by an island!”
“Yes, it has,” says the Chaplain, without turning around. The Warden glares at his long thin cigar and impatiently tosses it aside. He is wearing a dark brown suit, open shirt, and black string tie. “It would rain tonight,” he complains. In fact, it is not raining tonight at Sing Sing. It is a warm clear evening, a little heavy, and there are rumors of an impending heat wave, maybe as early as Saturday. The prison officials, who have had to proceed today with all the usual death-chair
him for years, and what better opportunity than to be able to turn the “soft on Communism” charge back on the old Master Red-Baiter himself? The British had made a chump out of him with their arrest of Fuchs, now he had to top them to save his neck, and with no other big guns in sight, only a vast network would make it for him. And if some links were lost, maybe others would have to be forged. Or David might simply have been guilty as hell, and jumped at the chance to save his own skin and