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43 For Tolstoy, this conception of history is more prevalent in the upper echelons of a society, since he believes that freedom is inversely related to the status of an individual, so that a slave has more freedom than a king. And Coover seems to agree, for the closer that Nixon gets to his coveted moment (Uncle Sam’s confirmation of him as a future president), the closer he gets to the political apogee, the less freedom he seems to have to improvise from the script. Believing that this case will provide him with a ‘gateway into History’, Nixon is more than willing to play his preconceived role (Public Burning 119–20).

Public Burning 473). His barnstorming 38 American Postmodernist Fiction and the Past address catalyses the execution and whips the crowd into a frenzy of Americanism, and in the final gruesome scene of the book proper, when Ethel stubbornly refuses to die after the first charge of electricity shoots through her body, it is the Vice-President who is first up the steps to pull the switch again, urging on history, honouring his commitment made earlier to Uncle Sam to re-establish ‘the national character’.

This juxtaposition of what happened and what could just as plausibly have happened is Nixon’s acknowledgement that, in the private sphere at least, there are myriad causes for a particular historical eventuality but no reason that makes it inevitable. Following this logic near the end of the novel, Nixon appears to see the possibility of moral choice at the individual level affecting political decisions. On the afternoon of the execution Nixon finally realises that much of the script has been tampered with, that perhaps ‘the case against the Rosenbergs had been a complete fabrication, beginning to end’ (Public Burning 369).

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