The Public Burning Summary

  • Last updated on July 18, 2023
Title: The Public Burning

Author: Robert Coover

Publish Date: 1977

Genre: Historical Fiction

Page Length: Approximately 565 pages (varying by edition)


The Public Burning, written by Robert Coover and published in 1977, is a significant work of historical fiction that delves into the controversial period of post-World War II America. Coover intertwines historical events and fictional characters to create a satirical narrative showcasing the political unrest and paranoia that gripped the nation during the early years of the Cold War.

Set in the 1950s, the novel incorporates the lives of three central characters. First, we encounter Richard Milhous Nixon, the Vice President at the time, who is portrayed as scheming and power-hungry. Next, the novel introduces the historical figure Julius Rosenberg, the alleged Soviet spy convicted of espionage. Lastly, there is Superman, the iconic comic book superhero, who represents the idealized American hero.

The book is divided into five sections, each addressing various plot points and themes.

Section One: "Overture" – This section serves as a prelude to the main narrative, setting up the stage for the intertwining stories of the three central characters. The scene is an allegorical enactment representing the destruction of innocence and the rise of Cold War tensions.

Section Two: "The Evidence" – In this section, the trial of Julius Rosenberg for espionage takes place. Nixon orchestrates the trial as a political spectacle, attempting to discredit and incite fear among the American people about the spread of communism. The trial reveals the manipulation and corruption within the judicial system, emphasizing Nixon's Machiavellian tactics and his portrayal as a villainous figure.

Section Three: "The Burning" – The third section centers around the symbolic public execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, emphasizing the brutality and injustice of their deaths. Coover employs elements of dark humor and absurdity to critique the government's role in the execution, exposing the inhumanity underlying political agendas.

Section Four: "An American Dream" – In this section, the narrative takes a surreal turn, mixing reality with fantasy. Superman becomes a metaphorical representation of American values, embodying the nation's collective conscious and aspirations. This section explores the yearning for an idealized version of America and the disillusionment that arises when confronted with the harsh realities of the world.

Section Five: "Western Union Cinderella" – The final section delves deeper into Nixon's character, depicting his rise to power, his controversial presidential campaign, and the eventual culmination of his political ambitions. Coover employs a mix of fictional and historical events, painting a bleak portrait of a nation engulfed in paranoia and political deception.

Themes such as political power, corruption, manipulation, the Cold War, the American Dream, and the weaponization of fear are prevalent throughout The Public Burning. Coover's biting satire and unconventional narrative style challenge readers to question the authority and motivations of their political leaders. By intertwining historical events with fictional elements, Coover encourages a critical examination of history and the narratives that shape it.

In conclusion, The Public Burning by Robert Coover offers a thought-provoking exploration of the turbulent era following World War II, shedding light on the deceptive nature of political power and the impact it has on individual lives. Through its careful blending of fact and fiction, the novel serves as a cautionary tale and a call for vigilance in the face of manipulation and injustice.

Categories: Books