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.”