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.)