American Postmodernist Fiction and the Past by Theophilus Savvas (auth.)

By Theophilus Savvas (auth.)

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For the first time Nixon appears to challenge the inevitability and necessity of the execution, and believes that he may be able simultaneously to save the lives of the two who ‘were guilty of something, all right, but not as charged’, and to expose the FBI (Public Burning 367–8). Questioning the binary leads him to think that perhaps that middle ground between the dialectical poles, that very ground which previously had made him ‘sweat’, was actually ‘where all the real motion took place now that the old frontier was gone: the suburbs, waystop for transients, and thus the true America.

For sure at one level he appears to be taking aim at those officials, who, like Nixon, could not see through the illusion and believed their own construct, believed that not only did the populace need the killings, it also desired them. 32 Yet, McCarthyism was not just a top-down movement, but rather one that had important bottom-up (populist) impetus, without which it could not have functioned. Hence, when Nixon, fearing that he will be mobbed by a baying crowd of Rosenberg supporters surrounding his taxi, finally steels himself and gets out, it transpires that the crowd are actually pushing for the death penalty.

25 Assuming that Julius was ‘probably some kind of sexual deviant, as well, most of these ghetto types were’ Nixon denies individuality to the couple, implying that on trial was not so much Julius and Ethel, but rather symbols, or mythic tropes for all that was ‘un-American’ (Public Burning 137). Coover furthers this theme by not drawing his own characterisation of the Rosenbergs, refusing them a consciousness in the novel, and keeping them, apart from a brief appearance by Ethel, waiting in the wings until the gruesome final act, as an analogue to their historical marginalisation through mythologisation.

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