(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Public Burning is an exaggerated fictionalization of the actual execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. Much of the book is narrated in the first person by a fictional version of Richard Nixon, but there are also folklore-like accounts of Uncle Sam, a larger-than-life mythic figure, in a life-and-death struggle with the Phantom, who symbolizes world communism, as well as actual documents from the Rosenberg case and contemporary news accounts, often adapted into the form of free verse or play scripts.

The novel begins with a prologue detailing the arrest, conviction, and sentencing of the Rosenbergs. This is the first indication of the book’s mixture of folklore and fact, as an accurate account of the historical workings of courts and law-enforcement agencies is counterpointed with a folk song about a groundhog hunt. As in history, the Rosenbergs are sentenced to die; in this version, their execution will take place not in the privacy of Sing Sing Prison but rather on a public stage in Times Square as part of a show-business performance.

The story proper begins on Wednesday, June 17, with Vice President Nixon’s account of the day’s events. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas has issued a stay of execution for the Rosenbergs, so President Dwight Eisenhower orders the Supreme Court into session to overturn the stay. Nixon encounters Uncle Sam at the Burning Tree Golf Course. Nixon knows that in this book’s mythic version of politics, Uncle Sam actually incarnates himself in the president, and Nixon longs to be the vehicle of that transformation. Nixon has no idea how that is done; he curries Uncle Sam’s favor and hopes to find out. This account of the events of Wednesday and Thursday is followed by an intermezzo, a mélange of quotations from Eisenhower’s public statements...

(The entire section is 772 words.)

The Public Burning Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The most political of all of Coover’s works, The Public Burning is a complex, carnavalesque investigation into the case of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, a Jewish couple with young children, executed in 1953 for allegedly sharing atomic secrets with the Soviets. The novel’s publication was delayed because of its controversial nature.

Coover’s text, based on extensive historical research and sometimes weaving in snippets of historical documents, suggests that the Rosenbergs may have been innocent victims of a bloodthirsty American public which needed scapegoats during the fearful Cold War period. Perhaps more controversial, the figure of Richard Nixon, “Tricky Dicky,” alive at the time and later to be president of the United States, is a narrator and main character. Nixon’s first-person narration alternates with that of an anonymous third-person narrator.

The novel contains twenty-eight chapters, divided into four seven-part sections by three “intermezzos.” It opens with a “newsreel” prologue and ends with an epilogue in which Nixon is raped by Uncle Sam. The action occurs principally in the last two and half days before the Rosenbergs’ execution. Characters range from Nixon to Uncle Sam to Gary Cooper playing a Western hero to a real Western hero, Wild Bill Hickok. Settings range from Sing Sing Prison to Times Square, where the Rosenbergs are executed in a carnival-like atmosphere which draws an immense audience. Nixon is a young, inexperienced politician, Uncle Sam the folksy image of America.

A third main character is the Phantom, representing chaos and disorder, who threatens the myth of America which Uncle Sam exemplifies. The Phantom is responsible for the Korean War, anti-American demonstrations around the world, and a temporary stay of execution for the Rosenbergs. As the plot develops, it becomes clear that the execution of the Rosenbergs is essential to the identity of the United States. Their execution is a public burning (electrocution), made into an “event” by the media, a national circus that draws together all members of “the tribe” and solidifies American group identity during a time of tremendous global uncertainty.