The Public Burning was Coover’s third novel, following The Origin of the Brunists (1967), which satirically detailed the founding of a new religion with marked similarities to Christianity, and The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (1968), in which a lonely man playing a tabletop baseball game of his own invention may have succeeded in bringing to life his imagined players and their world. He was also known for experimental short stories, including those collected in Pricksongs and Descants (1969). The audacious imagination, verbal and stylistic invention, and sexual explicitness of The Public Burning were unsurprising to those familiar with Coover’s early work, though all these qualities may have reached their peak in the novel. In Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears? (first published as a novella in 1975, revised version in book form 1987), Coover imagined another Nixon, one who failed in politics but found success in football and sex, both of which he mastered through sheer repetitive effort despite a lack of aptitude for either. This Nixon meets a sad end when he mindlessly follows one of his old football signals at a political demonstration. Other Coover novels, like the complex mystery Gerald’s Party (1985), have their admirers, but The Public Burning is generally deemed Coover’s masterpiece.
The Public Burning came out in 1977, three years after Nixon had been driven from the presidency in disgrace. Some saw the book as further picking on a defeated figure, while others thought the book and the recent events shed light on each other. The book was praised by some critics for its inventiveness and condemned by others for its sexuality and alleged leftist bias. The guilt of the Rosenbergs was still a controversial topic in 1977. Later evidence, including apparent Soviet spy records, makes the case for their guilt stronger, but questions about the case remain unresolved.