The Public Burning

by Robert Coover

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Literary Techniques

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 220

This is a critic's feast. Every second chapter is narrated by Nixon, and those told in an omniscient voice capture or parody a wide range of styles from popular culture and Time magazine (some Time accounts are set on the page as poetry) to variations on popular films and newspaper idioms. The book consists of four parts treating the two days leading up to the executions; each part consists of seven symmetrical chapters; a Prologue and Epilogue frame the parts, and they are separated by three operatic sections called "Intermezzo."

These intermezzos recall the dramatic origins of the novel. In one, Eisenhower's characteristic word distortion constitutes an aria on this incarnation's vision of the coming war with the Phantom. In the second, a recitative, Pris (Ethel) appeals to Pres (Eisenhower) for clemency on legal, moral, and humane grounds; in the final, a "Last Act Sing Sing Opera," Julius and Ethel reaffirm their love and dignity as the final hope for clemency wanes.

In its variety of styles and its vast scope, The Public Burning recalls other ambitious metafictional texts of the decade: John Gardner's The Sunlight Dialogues, Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, much of John Earth's and John Fowles's best work. Whatever controversy may surround its subject matter and theme, it is an audacious, thoroughly original, and impressive work of fiction.

Social Concerns

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 564

More sprawling in its scope and more overtly political than anything else he has written except for the story, "The Cat in the Hat for President," The Public Burning is the most defiant of Coover's novels. Whereas The Origin of the Brunists (1966) creates an epistemological fable about the development of religious frenzy and The Universal Baseball Association (1968) creates a fable about the nature of epistemology itself. The Public Burning explores the fabular nature of political history. Tiger Miller of the Brunists said, when sending out misleading copy early in the Brunists' evolution, "Such are history's documents." This could form an epigraph for The Public Burning in that Coover fashions his most explicitly political fiction around the degree to which political history is actually a set of fictions approved by those in power to explain and make legitimate their origins.

The Public Burning is centrally concerned, as the title implies, with those sacrifices a culture deems necessary to insure its survival. Coover's running allusion to Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, which was playing on Broadway in 1953 and which the character Richard Nixon wants to see, reinforces the novel's emphasis on cultural monism and the creation of scapegoats. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg are sacrificed to maintain the myth of cultural invincibility. The novel raises many doubts about their guilt. Their accusers are sleazy and untrustworthy. One, Harry Gold, Nixon considers crazy because Gold "played these weird baseball games with decks of cards" and kept exact records — a complex irony, for Coover's Nixon would never understand the imaginative yearnings of Coover's Henry Waugh. Coover also casts doubt on the value of the secrets the Rosenbergs supposedly passed on to the Soviets: Nobel Prize physicist Harold Urey, Nixon recalls, testified that "anyone could figure out how to build the Bomb," and that the data Ethel's brother gained access to probably was already available to the enemy. Coover implies that the Rosenbergs must die to serve the needs of a public ritual; their guilt or innocence is in some ways irrelevant.

The allusion to The Crucible, and the chapters associating the films House of Wax and High Noon with the action serve another important purpose. They reinforce a central issue of The Public Burning: the essential theatricality of the Rosenberg executions. Both of the main characters, Nixon and Ethel Rosenberg, have theatrical backgrounds, and Nixon once describes the whole Rosenberg affair as "A Little Morality Play for Our Generation." The execution is itself a public, theatrical spectacle. It takes place on Times Square, where a special set has been erected to simulate the death house at Sing Sing.

The theatrical character of the Rosenberg executions points effectively to the main theme of this novel: the need of institutions to perpetuate, even to renew themselves at the expense of individual citizens. All America watches as this husband and wife, innocent or guilty, die to satisfy a collective blood-lust and to enact the ritual of expelling the scapegoat who did not believe in the infallibility of America as it was evolving after World War I. Like Sacco and Vanzetti two generations before them — this case, crucial to the political development of John Dos Passos, certainly a major influence behind The Public Burning, is mentioned several times in Coover's novel — the Rosenbergs must die not for what they did but for their refusal to believe in the America the majority believes in.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 181

Anderson, Richard. Robert Coover. Boston: Twayne, 1981. This thorough presentation of Coover’s work for a prestigious American literature series includes a remarkably condescending treatment of The Public Burning (Chapter 4, as part of a general discussion of “the later works”), grudgingly praising its inventiveness but accusing it of lack of emotional range.

Cope, Jackson I. Robert Coover’s Fictions. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986. This study relates Coover’s work in general, and The Public Burning in particular, to Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the “dialogic novel,” in which the single authorial persona of traditional fiction is replaced by a multiplicity of voices, with the reader left to choose among them.

Gordon, Lois. Robert Coover: The Universal Fictionmaking Process. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983. A detailed study of Coover’s methods. Chapter 4 looks at mythical, linguistic, and social aspects of The Public Burning.

Viereck, Elisabeth, “The Clown Knew It All Along: The Medium Was the Message.” Delta 28 (June, 1989): 63-81. As the subtitle suggests, this essay applies Marshall McLuhan’s theories to the view of the media presented in The Public Burning.

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Critical Essays