Friday, October 07, 2011

The Public Burning (1977)

Title: The Public Burning
Author: Robert Coover
Publisher: Grove Atlantic Press
Price: $3.95 (Larklaugh Signature Books)
LCC:  PS3553.O633 N5

While preachers preach of evil fates
Teachers teach that knowledge waits
Can lead to hundred-dollar plates
Goodness hides behind its gates
But even the president of the United States
Sometimes must have to stand naked.

--Bob Dylan

In the middle of Robert Coover's The Public Burning, Michael Rosenberg watches a Red Sox game on television. The program is interrupted by a special message and he hears that the execution of his parents--the alleged Soviet spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg--will go on as scheduled. The news is naturally upsetting but it also causes young Michael to think about the mysteries of television. "He feels like there are two of himself loose in the world," Coover writes, "one who likes to play baseball with friends and come home to Mom and Dad and sometimes push his little brother around, and another one on television and in the newspapers who is threatening to eat the other one up." It is this disconnect between the image and the real that drives Coover's narrative. As I argued in my dissertation, a major trend in postmodern texts is that they endeavor to teach readers how to read their media. The Public Burning is well within this tradition. Coover instructs readers to note how the television image is both hollow and hallowed.

Although Critique has produced two special issues dedicated to the novel, The Public Burning does not occupy the central place in the canon of postmodernism that it deserves. I suspect this is because of the timidity of publishers rather than the oversight of critics. Completed in 1975, The Public Burning did not see print until 1977 because publishers were afraid that the novel would be the subject of multiple lawsuits. Although it quickly shot to the bestseller list, it never went to paperback and would be out of print for over twenty years. What was unique about The Public Burning, and what presented potential legal liabilities, is that the novel is partly narrated by Richard Nixon. Although Coover's Nixon is a fictional construct, his publishers were afraid that they could be sued for libel. Neither Nixon nor any of the other historical personages represented in the novel ever filed suit. Since Hustler Magazine v. Falwell it seems that this line of legal reasoning has been extinguished. Fiction may insult, the court said, but it cannot be construed as libel.

Coover's novel is an epic counter-history of the Rosenberg's last three days before their execution on June 19, 1953. Rather than hold to the historical record, Coover turns the execution into a public spectacle in Times Square, an entertainment extravaganza orchestrated by the best talents of Hollywood and Broadway. By imposing these fictitious elements onto the historical record, Coover enables readers to see the executions as a "show trial," one that was intended to have significant spiritual significance. Coover's America is like ours, but he makes literal the Manichaeism of the Cold War. Uncle Sam is a real character in the novel and the sitting president is his Incarnation, fighting on the forces of light. However, America is bedeviled by the forces of the Phantom, a specter that haunts America and provides the nation with a vague sense of unease. The Rosenbergs serve as scapegoats and their execution is intended to serve as an exorcism, ridding the nation of the dreaded Phantom.

Coover's novel also attempts to go past Nixon's media persona and explores the man behind the public mask. In his portrayal of the then-Vice President, Coover seems to draw heavily on Garry Wills's Nixon Agonistes (1969). Wills's thesis was that Nixon was in fact a classic liberal, a self-made man who was constantly in competition with his fellow man and was therefore resentful of others' success. In turn, Nixon came to power by marshaling similar resentments of the electorate. Capitalizing on this thesis, Coover depicts a Nixon who sees himself in constant competition not only with President Eisenhower and a then-Senator Jack Kennedy, but with the Rosenbergs themselves. However, Nixon also identifies with the Rosenbergs' childhood poverty and is torn between feeling better than them and sympathizing with their current plight. Of course, Coover's take on Nixon is far more satiric than Will's more rational analysis. By the end of the novel, Nixon will prove Bob Dylan right. Dick Nixon will address the nation with his pants down, but only after Ethel Rosenberg scrawls a message on his ass in red lipstick. We come to understand Nixon as a man torn by conflicting sentiments, but ultimately he is a man who will do anything to seize power.

"The Public Burning" was not Coover's first choice for the novel's title. However, he said he reconciled himself to his editor's suggestion when he discovered its meaning shifted if the word burning was read as a noun or a verb. The title can either refer to the public electrocution of the Rosenbergs or it can refer to the figurative burning of the public itself. A novel that describes the extensive mediation of American life and politics, the novel would seem to suggest that the very concept of the public has been lost to us.

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