The Public Burning

by Robert Coover

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The Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 417

The one character readers see most closely is Richard Nixon, presented through a continuing internal monologue that shows him at his worst and at his best. Throughout the book, he displays a single-minded pursuit of the presidency and a morbid concern with how he is being perceived. In a revealing moment, he muses on the fact that both he and Eisenhower had wanted to be railroad engineers when they were children, but he had done so merely because he knew that America considered such an ambition praiseworthy, while Eisenhower would actually have been willing to waste his life in such an unprestigious job. He is both fascinated and repelled by sex, and he is unwilling to face his feelings about the matter.

Yet for all these skillfully presented flaws, the book’s Nixon is by no means an entirely unpleasant figure. He is, within his limits, a person who cares about his family and generally wants to do good as he perceives it, so long as it will not interfere with his ambitions. His desperate efforts to understand his situation give the reader a certain sympathy for him. Coover skillfully weaves into the narrative actual writings of Nixon’s, from the explanations of public events Nixon included in his autobiographical Six Crises (1962) to a letter he wrote to his mother when he was a child in which he took on the persona of a long-suffering dog.

Uncle Sam is presented as mythical, if not actually godlike. Like a trickster god, he creates bounty but often victimizes those who try to seek it. He is presented in his public statements and his conversations with Nixon; in both, he speaks less like an actual person than like a character in a tall tale. He is vulgar, trashy, grandiose, and boastful. Uncle Sam’s rival, the Phantom, who personifies communism as Uncle Sam personifies America, is an enigma. Appropriately enough, he makes no open appearances in the text, but it is suggested that the taxi driver Nixon encounters is really him.

Ethel Rosenberg is also distantly presented. She is encountered primarily through melodramatic public discourse, phrased in the rhetoric of the left. Readers get no view within her, no knowledge of whether she actually did what she was charged with having done. Even when she appears onstage and interacts personally, she speaks mostly in political rhetoric, and readers cannot be sure whether her near-sexual encounter with Nixon actually arouses her or is merely part of an effort to embarrass him.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1001

Because of its mass and its scope, the novel has a predictably large cast of characters. These can be broken down into three classes: historical victims; historical oppressors, by far the largest group; and personifications of public attributes.

Because one purpose of The Public Burning is to treat that moment in history at which the attitudes of America solidified into an unquestioning monism, Coover treats many historical figures as having mythic proportions. President Eisenhower's famous obscurantist rhetoric is effectively parodied and the General's insensitivity to the human issues the Rosenberg case raises is satirized. Senator Joseph McCarthy's notorious belligerence toward anything red is effectively evoked, as is Senator Robert Taft's statesmanship; the novel significantly treats Taft's terminal cancer as symbolic of a dying political order.

Most spectacularly, however, half of the novel is narrated by then-Vice President Richard Milhous Nixon. Although this is not the only literary treatment of this man whose impact on American politics can legitimately be called "mythic" — Stanley Elkin has Nixon telephone the hero of The Dick Gibson Show, and the protagonist of Philip Roth's bitter satire Our Gang (1971) is clearly based on Nixon; while writing The Public Burning Coover also wrote a novella, Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears (1977), which parodied Nixon as a football player; Oliver Stone in 1995 directed a controversial film based on Nixon's career — no other treatment is as extensive or as sympathetic as this one.

All the familiar Nixon public attributes make up this portrait: his sweating, heavy beard, paranoia, bitter resentment of his opponents, delight in beating his opponents cruelly, public sanctimoniousness versus private swearing, and overwhelming ambition. This Nixon, however, has something more; he has imagination and possible compassion. When Uncle Sam demands that he research the Rosenberg case, Nixon has the imagination to empathize with Ethel and Julius and eventually to recognize that they are innocent. Other historical figures such as President Eisenhower and J. Edgar Hoover lack the imagination or clarity of vision to see that the evidence does not convict these people. The tragedy of Nixon's being wooed by the public need to execute the Rosenbergs, and thus to ignore his own belief in their innocence, is Coover's indictment of the degree to which patriotism and ambition can destroy a potentially decent man. Nixon goes to Sing Sing, not as many critics assume to rescue Ethel, but to get her confession. That is what he believes Uncle Sam wants, and her innocence, of which he is aware, is not relevant if Uncle Sam is not interested in it. Neither is her life. Thus, although Coover indicated in an interview that Nixon was needed to provide a "clown" for the "three-ring circus" the novel is structured around, what happens to Nixon, although funny when his bum is exposed in Times Square, is anything but comic. It is an indication of how Uncle Sam's version of America dehumanizes individuals.

Although Nixon and Ethel seem to be sexually attracted to one another in the final scenes, she is his philosophical opposite. Ethel is firmly dedicated to maintaining her innocence even at the expense of her life. In her plea to President Eisenhower for mercy, however, she gives the impression that she chooses martyrdom, and her choice of death as a principled martyr does leave her beloved sons orphans. Despite this, Ethel remains an engaging character because of her humorously outwitting Nixon (writing "I am a scamp" on his backside) and her meeting her public execution with calm dignity.

The most interesting characters in the novel are not really characters at all, but personifications of public attitudes. Time magazine, son of Mother Luce, is America's Poet Laureate, giving aphoristic versions of the events of the time and commenting on these in conformity with popular interpretations of events (condemning, for example, Justice Douglas for granting a stay of execution). Betty Crocker, advertising's symbol for the bliss all women should find in the kitchen, acts as mistress of ceremonies for the executions. Most controversial, and most responsible for the public castigation of the novel is the personification Uncle Sam.

Part Yankee Peddler, part Sam Slick, part vulgar cynic, and part recruitment poster, Sam embodies an unintellectual yet savvy patriotism, the coming order the novel laments. The pressure on the artist to support this order is suggested when Billy Faulkner speaks at the execution, and the result is an effective parody of Faulkner's famous Nobel Prize speech. Sam knows that the Rosenbergs' guilt or innocence is irrelevant. What is needed is a public rite of passage into a new order, and the Rosenbergs will do as well as anyone else to usher in his version of the Cold War, a running confrontation with that other allegorical figure, The Phantom, whom Sam describes as the source of all misfortune, "half cousin to the cholera and Godfather of the Apocalypse!" This new order may require that some old liberties be eliminated; when Nixon accuses him of killing the Rosenbergs needlessly, Sam brushes off the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights as the "wild oats of youth" that served a purpose when the nation was in the building phase, but must not stand in the way of blind loyalty to institutions historically created to protect these principles — in short, to Uncle Sam.

In this context, the final and most controversial scene of the book, Sam's sodomizing Nixon after he has proved he can convert any public embarrassment into an occasion for patriotic display, makes sense on a symbolic level. Nixon believes that the Presidency, toward which he earnestly aspires, is Incarnation; a man is imbued with Uncle Sam's presence. In the last scene, Sam figuratively impregnates Nixon with his vital essence, preparing him for his Incarnation and bringing from Nixon a long-awaited profession of love. Most crucially, the sodomy is a form of rape; Nixon's victimization means his final, abject, submission to what Uncle Sam represents. It is also his reward for suppressing his human feelings about the victimization of the Rosenbergs.

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