The Rosenberg story(ies): A literary history
Isle, Walter W.
Doctor of Philosophy
The 1950-1953 story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg's trial, conviction, and execution for allegedly giving away the atomic bomb "secret" demonstrates an oscillation and reciprocity between material history and its motivated and collaborative narrative construction. An examination of government documents, court records, print media, letters, diaries, historiographies, biographies, and FBI and Department of Justice files released since the 1974 FOI Act, reveals the intertextual, formal, and rhetorical operations involved in the construction of the official Rosenberg story. These documents also reveal the extent to which the outcome of that story depended upon race, class, and gender. The coherent official version manifests a polarized conflictual plot, a cause-effect narrative line, and the most definitive ending available in fiction or history--death as retribution and redemption--despite documented government uncertainties. Operating in excess of any concept of the "real" story, the elaboration of the official version over time also gives voice to its historical context and motivations, demonstrating political positionality as prior to any telling of the Rosenberg story. It developed as an embedded narrative in the frame narrative of the cold war, and was intended to force Julius to tell the story of an FBI-alleged Atomic Spy Ring. But the desired official story stopped with the Rosenbergs' deaths, and instead a cultural re-telling began, using the Rosenbergs as the occasion for an historical interrogation of the function of narrative in history-masking and/or -making. E. L. Doctorow's 1971 Book of Daniel and Robert Coover's 1977 Public Burning offer fictional/factual critiques of the Rosenberg story, its historical frame narrative, cold war ideology, and of a twentieth-century capitalist, masculist society which Coover figures as operating according to the binary logic and obsessions of early anality. These postmodern anti-narrative novels figure, dramatize, and formally enact the potentials for and limits to contemporary oppositional cultural political work--a homeopathic and often sacrificial practice of narrating to undo narrative, of positing narrative sequences and relationships masked by narrative sequences and relationships, and of resisting closure in order to remain open to narrative/historical transformation. In this, the postmodern artist and critic may share the same purpose.
American literature; American history; Law