The Public Burning

by Robert Coover

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 772

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.

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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 set as free verse.

On Friday morning, Nixon is chauffeured into Washington. Traffic has been all but stopped by the crowds, so he decides to walk. He finds himself in the middle of an angry mob, which frightens him until he realizes that it is on his side, cheering for the upcoming execution. He finally makes it to the White House, where Eisenhower announces that the Supreme Court has overturned the stay so that the Rosenbergs can die that evening. A second intermezzo presents Ethel Rosenberg’s plea for clemency and Eisenhower’s denial of it as a dramatic dialogue.

Nixon then takes a taxi to the Senate office building. The cab driver, who regales him with jokes and stories, is a mysterious figure. At first, he claims to be an old friend from Nixon’s World War II Navy service, but he gets stranger and more menacing; Nixon finally flees. Nixon is puzzled by the case: He does not understand the Rosenbergs, and he is by no means entirely convinced of their guilt. He is particularly fascinated by Ethel, whose background in some ways resembles his. As he ponders her story in his office, his thoughts grow lewd, and he may be about to masturbate. Uncle Sam catches him and orders him to go to Sing Sing Prison to speak to Ethel and perhaps find out the truth about the Rosenbergs.

After the final intermezzo—remarks of the Rosenbergs and Sing Sing’s warden presented as an opera—Nixon is admitted to Ethel’s cell. Ethel spurns Nixon’s offer to spare her and execute only her husband. Finally, Nixon makes a pass at her, and they kiss. She encourages him and even opens his belt, but before they can actually have sex, she says she hears the guards coming; she leaves him frustrated, his pants around his ankles.

Back at Times Square, the public burning is about to take place. There is a nationally televised warmup for the execution, led by Uncle Sam himself, and performers such as Jack Benny and the Marx Brothers do comedy bits about the case. Then Nixon arrives, his pants still down and the words “I AM A SCAMP” on his bare buttocks, written there in lipstick by Ethel. Nixon manages to turn this embarrassment into a public triumph, urging everyone to drop their pants for America. At the height of the excitement, there is a blackout, but the power is restored by Uncle Sam himself, and the Rosenbergs are electrocuted.

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In the epilogue, Uncle Sam performs the ritual recognition of the future president in his usual fashion—by sodomizing Nixon and telling him, “You’re my boy.” Nixon finds the pain almost unbearable but finally says, “I love you, Uncle Sam.”

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