The Public Burning
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.”
thinking of another. It’s a political expediency, like appearing to answer a question emphatically while in fact evading the whole point of the question, or learning to repeat verbatim questions from the floor in order to have time to think of answers. I leaned forward and said that, bad as things were, they nevertheless all but assured the passage of our foreign-aid bill through the House today, but I was thinking: What are all those people doing out there? Why has Uncle Sam let this thing get
Big Trail with John Wayne. Something great is happening. Yes, they all feel it. It’s like being with Sam Houston at the San Jacinto or with old Rough-and-Ready at Resaca de la Palma. Drinking buffalo blood with the free trappers along the Snake, fighting with Sam Brannon’s vigilantes, massacring Comanches at Plum Creek, Kiowas in Palo Duro Canyon, Pueblos in the mission church at Taos. A great day for America, something out of the past to revive the future, fired with risk and destiny. But then
last reunited, and pregnancy, if doubted before, was now assured. TIME was born in an old remodeled house of vaguely Italianate style not far from here at 141 East Seventeenth Street. As midwife Culbreth Sudler once described it: “You thumped one step down from the street into the windowless dining room on the ground floor and then mounted to the living room which ran across the front of the house. The paint on the woodwork was so thick it was like cheese. Here we set up loft-type tables.” And it
dumped them out, then went off to a movie by myself. And now, Christ, she was even complaining publicly about my thrashing around in bed, about my jumping up in the middle of the night to take notes, waking her up with my sudden fears or enthusiasms—I’d made her the Number Two lady in the nation, did she think you got something like that for nothing? Some woman had wandered into the car and by request had sat down on the armrest of the empty seat beside me to sing “I’d Rather Die Young” for
believed it all himself, locked away in his inner sanctum, reading all those eager-beaver reports from ambitious agents, fluttering through all those inventories and interviews, surveillance reports and signed confessions. Sometimes the entire FBI file on the case read like a strange remote dialogue between Gold and Hoover—a speaker, reaching for the truth, a hearer, avidly sanctifying the revelations: a sinner and his distant God. At the time of the trial, the newspapers were full of front-page