The Public Burning
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.”
Of course, it was easy for him, growing up in a town that had had Wild Bill Hickok for its sheriff, he probably had it in his blood. I had naturally put myself in his position: could I have refused them clemency? I wasn’t sure. I knew what the national consensus was and I rarely bucked it, but I could see Grandma Milhous shaking her dark head solemnly from her rocking chair, Mom watching me wistfully from a distant room, softening my heart. But then, as I held out my hand to them in
thinks, and I’ve come out the other side. He doesn’t really believe this, it’s just a joke to lighten a little his sinking heart. Sinking because it’s all coming together—the stampeding masses, the creeping socialism and exploding waxworks, the tracks of history and time-lapse overviews—into the one image that has been pursuing him through all his sleepless nights, the billowing succubus he’s been nurturing for nine months now, ever since the new hydrogen-bomb tests at Eniwetok: yes, the final
Official Executioner Joseph Francel, by mustard gas. Patterns everywhere. Little Reggie, led through the Square by a brace of English bobbies, gazes gently at all the women, leaving a wake of frothy excitement. Some women are frightened, some smile, some faint, some come to orgasm. It’s supposed that Dr. Alfred Kinsey, invited here tonight to pursue his celebrated studies into the effects of electrocution upon the erogenous zones, cannot be far behind. In such a pack-up there’s a natural rush on
Mr. Bennett! I’m here on my own! I’ve come to offer you—” “We will not be intimitated by your fascist methods, Mr. Nixon!” she snapped. Her words were harsh, but she couldn’t hide her desperation. “We have done nothing wrong and if we must die for that, then we shall die for it!” “If you die at all, it will be because you and your husband want to! You’ve been given a fair chance and it’s still open! You’re just doing this for your own goddamn glory!” “Oh no! We do not wish to be martyrs or
and peers over his shoulder at the Chaplain. He clears his throat and speaks brusquely: “Has it started raining?” “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