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“Nothing but words”? chronicling and storytelling in Robert Coover's the public burning

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Robert Coover's 1977 novel The Public Burning is a dramatic re-presentation of the last three days of the lives of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Dubbed the “atomic spies” by the media, the Rosenbergs were accused of passing on the “secret” of the atomic bomb to the Russians. The sensational trial provoked widespread attention for its seeming encapsulation of the fault lines in American society opened up by anticommunism and the emergent Cold War. Found guilty, they were the first American nationals to be executed for espionage. This paper analyses the different narrative methods that Coover employs to re-present the past. In particular I focus on Coover's juxtaposition of a third-person, seemingly omniscient, narrator with the first-person narratological voice of then Vice President Richard Nixon. I suggest that we can best understand this not simply as providing objective and subjective versions of the event, as some critics have claimed, but rather as a distinction between history as chronicle (or what I call a synchronic method of history), and history as storytelling (or diachrony). Through this The Public Burning becomes not just a satirical critique of the specific political culture of the time, I contend, but, more fundamentally, a general exploration of the difficulties of reconstituting past events into knowledge. It is here, perhaps, where the novel's continuing relevance for today lies.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)171-186
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of American Studies
Volume44
Issue number1
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2010

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