Robert Coover’s ’70s Novel ‘The Public Burning’ Eerily Anticipates Trump
A vicious, albeit artful satire about the execution of the Rosenbergs, Robert Coover’s searing novel predicts our ugly mash-up of politics and entertainment.
As Donald Trump’s inauguration looms, I am already impatient for some quick and angry fiction writer to publish a novel dealing with the Artist of the Deal. Writing before the election, the veteran political novelist Thomas Mallon outlined in the New Yorker what he would do in a novel about the campaign, but said he was too disgusted to write it. Surely rage will move others with stronger stomachs to engage the ugly campaign and the possibly uglier administration filled with spiteful know nothings and canny profiteers. I hope for a new Dunciad, an epic narrative in verse or prose that would be both non-fiction—naming names, as Alexander Pope did—and transcendentally fictional, as Pope’s Kingdom of Dulness was, for only a work of penetrating imagination can expose the cultural myths and archetypes beneath and behind what journalists have reported in 2016.
While we await the Trumpciad, we are fortunate to have Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, an encyclopedic novel published in 1977 that quotes Pope: “Aghast I stood [before] a monument of woe.” I’ve been writing about American fiction since the late ’60s, and I think that no novel gives us better understanding of Trump’s election than The Public Burning. Coover knows rage. In 2014, he published a thousand-page sequel, The Brunist Day of Wrath, to his first novel, Origin of the Brunists. A wrathful Public Burning II would be welcome, but the original took him many years to write, the Brunist sequel came 48 years after Origin, and he is 84. So today it’s back to 1953 and the public electrocution, in Coover’s imagination, of the “atomic spies” Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in Times Square, the “Entertainment Capital of America,” in a saturnalia directed by the flitting Superhero and Barnum and Bailey ringmaster Uncle Sam.
More complimentary than anything I can say to recommend The Public Burning are facts surrounding its publication. Coover’s initial publisher refused to release the novel for fear of libel. Another publisher attempted to emasculate it. Originally intended for the Bicentennial, publication was delayed for a year by the press that did bring it out. Many of the reviews were rabidly negative as critics, who had not yet experienced the offenses of Trump, were grievously offended by Coover’s presentation of the Rosenbergs as witch-hunt victims, Vice President Nixon as a sniveling careerist, Uncle Sam as an imperialistic sodomist, and by the novel’s formal and stylistic innovations.
Structured as a three-ring circus, The Public Burning perfectly represented what the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin called the “carnivalesque,” a radically subversive style of excess and satire that Bakhtin traced back to the Feast of Fools. If paper-skinned Donald Trump thought the cast of Hamilton had insulted Vice President-elect Pence, the Executive Tweeter would have been apoplectic at how Coover mocks Vice President Nixon. And if the paranoid Trump who attacks tame sketches on Saturday Night Live had been one of the fools in The Public Burning, he would have launched teams of legal drones at Coover and his publisher—and would have used the novel as evidence to support his desire to strengthen libel laws and weaken free speech.
The Public Burning intentionally violates traditional fiction’s canons of good taste, but it is an exceptionally artful historical novel. The private and public lives of the Rosenbergs and Nixon have been scrupulously researched, and minor political characters have been scooped from the newspapers and public records of the time. Knowing that reviewers and other readers would take issue with his imaginative transformation of the Rosenbergs’ execution, Coover takes great pains to make the realism of his magic realism unimpeachable—documentary and super-realistic. Even his magic—the figure of Uncle Sam—is a compendium of American history and discourse. Coover has said he wanted the novel “to seem to have been written by the whole nation through all of its history,” and braggart Uncle Sam spouts lines from an amazing variety of popular culture sources. Because of its encyclopedic range and its shifting points of view, prose chapters and poetic interludes, The Public Burning may at first seem as chaotic as a crowd out of control, burning with murderous passion, but the novel is in fact carefully ordered, just as a three-ring circus is. Patterns of character doubling and skeins of metaphor emerge from the welter. Comedy and tragedy merge as the plot narrows to the absurd. All this is to say that The Public Burning will reward the literary reader in its own right, independent of how it seems to forecast and reveal the world of Donald Trump.
Coover studied anthropology in college, and it is the influence of that discipline that enables Coover to dig beneath psychology, sociology, economics, and conventional political theory to see the deep structure of political life in America. In Negara, Clifford Geeertz’s study of 19th century Balinese culture, he found—I’m simplifying here—that the authority and power of rulers came from performance, from display, the grander the better, rather than from western notions of command and force. Geertz called Balinese politics the “theater state.” Coover brings this interpretation to the politics of the ’50s. Politics has always been at least partly about performance, the candidates’ appeal to the crowd, but Coover recognized that, as he has Nixon say, “This is a generation that wants to be entertained.” Personal ethics, policies, laws, codes of behavior, performance of duties—all are sacrificed to entertainment in Coover’s America decades before reality TV and Internet cat videos.
Nixon is the realistic version of the performer, the clown in Coover’s circus, capable of both bathetic appeals to others and amusing pratfalls for others. In 2017, Coover’s portrait of a much-studied Nixon will not be news, but the novel’s presentation of the self-made (for others) man is remarkable for how Coover connects psychological detail to sociological—and anthropological—dynamics. Nixon is one version of democratic man, “free” from the constraint of some inherited, intrinsic identity. Feeling nothing himself, Nixon desperately solicits the approval, respect, and applause of others, a performative or extrinsic identity. He is tricky, pompous, self-serving and self-pitying, always aware of the “audience” even when alone.
Nixon the politician for life is Donald Trump the attention-mad New York developer who leveraged himself up from tabloid entertainment and guest of Howard Stern to business failure and conspiracy theorist to successful showman and hate-mongering political candidate. In his early years, Trump was willing to play the clown to garner publicity as he plastered his name all over grandiose buildings. When I was protesting in front of Trump Tower, I used to tell obvious Trump supporters that it wasn’t really The Tower. “Wait, what is it then?” “A façade,” I told them, “like the man.”
We know all this about Trump now, may have known it for a few decades when he was not taken seriously. What Coover recognized was that performance was deeply ingrained in American culture 70 years ago, long before what we now know as the Entertainment State and before an entertainer could reach his audience 24 hours a day with his Twitter account. Coover’s Nixon attempts to escape his role as clown, but makes a greater fool of himself by adopting a movie-inspired role for which he is unsuited: heroic rescuer of the damsel in distress, Ethel Rosenberg. Though humiliated in Times Square, as Trump was at a roast by Obama for the developer’s “birther” campaign, Nixon the needy no-man is ultimately accepted by Uncle Sam as a future president. It’s the Trump success story, one that relied on Nixonian strategies in the campaign.
The national and global politics presented in The Public Burning are religion-rooted, Manichean (the American Children of Light versus the Communist Forces of Darkness), and paranoid, Americans fearful of atomic attack by the Russians to whom the Rosenbergs were convicted of passing secrets. As if to fit into this part of the essay, Trump recently tweeted that a new nuclear arms race was in order because he feared America was falling behind the Russians. Uncle Sam, as personification of American imperial power, instructs Nixon in the political uses of fear and in the pragmatics of scapegoating. The Jewish and New York City dwelling Rosenbergs fit the role of sacrificial victims just as immigrants and Muslims and cosmopolitan “elites” fit the role of scapegoats for Trump as he campaigned in the “heartland,” the “real” America of undereducated white Christians. For Coover, the appeal of performance in America is so strong that the Rosenbergs seem to accept their role. Once convicted, they give up human particularities to become abstract symbols of injustice. Americans and others identified by Trump as enemies of the homeland could try to resist the role he foisted upon them, but he controlled the space of performance—the visual media, the theater state—where power is asserted, repeated, maintained. Like good liberals, the Rosenbergs respected legal codes and expected the courts to protect them, but the courts were no competition for the hysteria whipped up by Uncle Sam for the entertainment and instruction of the American people who, Coover implies, wanted a ritual sacrifice of the kind performed by “primitive” cultures to protect themselves from nature and the gods. Regression and atavism rule Coover’s world, just as they did Trump’s “Make America Great Again” rallies.
It’s in the “god” of The Public Burning, Uncle Sam, that Coover most strikingly foresees Trump and his public. Based partly on Sam Slick, the Yankee peddler, Uncle Sam pretends to be a populist strong man defending American Christianity and protecting the little people from domestic and foreign evil, but in fact Sam is an “incorrigible huckster, a sweet-talking con artist,” a protean shape-shifter, the impure principle of performance and entertainment, controlling characters and events to perpetuate his power to control characters and events. It is Sam who moves the execution from the prison at Sing Sing to Times Square where he assembles entertainers, officials, and celebrities to create a ceremony that will bind Americans together in a spasm of hate and vengeance, a festival that takes to extremes the violent and vile emotions elicited in Trump’s rallies. Like Trump, Sam is consistently vulgar in act and speech. He strings together others’ phrases, slogans, clichés, and dog whistles from centuries of American jingoism, racism, and misogyny. And also like Trump, Sam has no respect for facts: History, he tells Nixon, “is more or less bunk, as Henry Ford liked to say, as saintly and wise a pup as this nation’s seen since the Gold Rush—the fatal slantindicular futility of Fact! Appearances, my boy, appearances! Practical politics consists in ignorin’ facts! Opinion ultimately rules the world!”
Uncle Sam has no use for history, but the Americana Coover puts in Sam’s mouth demonstrate that the enmities and violence he elicits are not new in 1953 but old features of American culture. In Coover’s conceit, U.S. presidents are “Incarnations” of Uncle Sam. Donald Trump is the most recent but not original.
Coover’s vernacular populist Sam is not the old man on military recruiting posters but a sexualized macho Superhero whose way of baptizing future presidents is forcibly sodomizing them, as he does Nixon. When Ethel is burned, her body flapping in the air, the description is full of misogynistic sadism as the crowd’s erotic burnings stoked by Sam are satisfied. The Rosenbergs are mostly presented in prison, which becomes a metaphor for a country where power takes the form of a bully thug buggering America, an obscene image you may not be ready—yet—to associate with Trump even if he has proudly stated that he grabs pussy whenever he wants and that he is hugely equipped. Like hypocritical Sam, Trump claimed to be the saving embodiment of old patriarchal power—personal, national, and religious. The last, association with Christian righteousness, was perhaps Trump’s greatest deception, reeling in evangelical voters just as Sam’s burned sacrifice excites the religious in Times Square when the Rosenbergs, Jews like Jesus, are electrically crucified and symbolically raped for the nation’s sins.
The Public Burning began as a theater skit and over many years became a marvelous example of Bertolt Brecht’s “epic theater” that used “alienation effects” to keep the audience from emotionally identifying too closely with the characters on stage and to force the audience to think about the historical, social, and political systems in which the characters functioned. Coover’s alienation devices can be dizzying: feel, think, feel, think, so he includes a character who represents, I believe, the effects he wants to have on his readers. The unnamed character lurches out of House of Wax, a 3-D movie playing in New York City at the time of the executions. Still wearing his disorienting 3-D glasses and stumbling through Times Square, the character is able to understand some of the ritual going on but also wails “BEWARE THE MAD ARTIST.” Coover is an enraged artist who alienates readers with what seem to be crazed excesses in order to reveal the buried psychological and archetypal motives that produce the burning in the novel and in America, both then and now—the resentful nationalistic crowd’s burning need for revenge on the “other,” politicians’ heated desire to manipulate the crowd’s thoughtless passion, and the incineration of nuclear war that may be the end of performance-whipped emotions. Another character, possibly the evil Phantom himself, speaks for rationalists, realists, and many reviewers: “`Life’s always new and changing, so why fuck it up with all this shit about scapegoats, sacrifices, initiations, saturnalias.’” But these are precisely the elements that gird Coover’s achievement, identifying the archaic ghosts in America’s machine of civil religion that Trump summoned out of sweaty flesh. His rallies were mocked by the computer-modeling Democrats, but Trump knew, from his own narcissism, what Uncle Sam knew: that people jammed together feel free to abandon their better selves for passionate id-iocy [sic].
No matter how “MAD” Coover is about mass manipulation and mass hysteria, he remains the “ARTIST,” both performing and deconstructing performing. He realized that “Envoutements have been known to destroy the priests who practiced them,” as performing characters are destroyed in several of his short stories, and yet he was willing to risk the excoriating reviews he received to give America what I think is its most profound political novel, one that exhaustively anatomizes the ’50s and casts ahead to 2016 and beyond with its anthropological insight and ethnographic detail. Coover includes a scene in which Arthur Miller, sitting in a theater where The Crucible is showing, muses that “Art is not as lethal as it might be.” The aggravated assault and battery of The Public Burning come very close to “lethal” art as Coover does his damnedest to kill off the American myths of moral exceptionalism and providential favor by demonstrating the profane backside of the sacred so often invoked by demagogue politicians.
I have merely sketched here the deep and wide achievement of The Public Burning. If you would like to learn more, I was one of the few reviewers who praised it (in the New Republic, if you still have issues from 1977 around), and I wrote about it in detail in my The Art of Excess. With limited space here, I have also merely skimmed off the most obvious ways Coover’s fiction anticipates our world of fact. If you have followed the rise of Trump—the scandals, the frauds, the cruelties, the buffoonery—reading The Public Burning you will find scores of amusing and instructive details that demonstrate Coover’s prescience and give you an historical lens through which to see Uncle Sam’s new boy in office who looked, on the day he visited President Obama, as if Uncle Sam had had his way with the Donald’s butt.
I’ve written this essay for fiction readers, but also for fiction writers, particularly those too young to have encountered The Public Burning. I hope that American novelists will be inspired by Coover’s rage and courage, his attention to the deepest structures of public life, and the inventive methods he uses to break through the scrim of conventional political novels. Trump has consistently attacked journalists, the people who uncovered many of the facts employed in The Public Burning. He has also attacked dramatic artists who, like Coover, mock fakery and ignorance. We need novelists who will defend fact-gatherers and performers, novelists who will attack with heroic fictions the manifold fictions of Trumpism. Since Trump is easily offended and enraged, an epic of mockery like The Public Burning might seduce him into some tweeted stupidity that not even he could lie his way out of. But even if a mock epic novel cannot bring down a president, can’t be “lethal,” it can rally the demagogue’s opponents and become a text of resistance, as Catch-22 was during the Vietnam War.
In The Public Burning there are all manners of burning. What I didn’t find was the meaning of “burned,” as in misled and cheated. Perhaps that word is so obvious it need not be remarked in a culture ruled by performance, and yet it is still my final word. With the election of Trump, we need The Public Burned.