Friday, June 30, 2006

Breakdown '73

Last night I finished a new book titled 1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol, and the Birth of Post-Sixties America by Andreas Killen. It's a fairly scholarly book. That isn't intended as a putdown--scholarly doesn't necessarily equal dull, although it does mean you have to keep your brain engaged a bit more than you might like for a summer read. (I didn't mind, but I'm a geek that way.)

For many people, 1973 in America equals Watergate. Killen's analysis of Watergate as a national ceremony of parricide (killing your father) and how the theme of parricide resonates through some of the year's other landmark events, such as The Exorcist and the furor surrounding it, is something I've never read anywhere else. Although Killen spends a lot of time on Watergate, he largely ignores the Constitutional near-meltdown surrounding the famous Saturday Night Massacre and the way it contributed to the sense of creeping paranoia that followed it. He does, however, talk a lot about the weird national mood in 1973, finding its sources in the impending end of the post-World War II economic boom and the continuing erosion of the postwar social consensus, which he believes began with the Kennedy assassination. His chapters on airline hijackings, the PBS series An American Family (the first reality TV series), and the way movies like American Graffiti and the blaxploitation genre mirrored the mood, offer some interesting insights also.

Killen spends too much time on subjects more interesting to a scholarly audience than a non-scholarly one--I guarantee that when most people think back over 1973, the sea-change in architectural philosophy, as demonstrated by the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, probably doesn't rank among the year's most significant events. Yet architecture gets a whole chapter, while the women's movement, and especially the Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs tennis match, which symbolized so much of the conflict over the movement and America's reactions to it, doesn't rate a mention. Similarly, I think Killen overrates the importance of Andy Warhol and the New York "underground" over which he presided, which mattered if you were there, but hardly at all if you weren't.

Nevertheless, I'd recommend the book, but don't be afraid to skip a few paragraphs or a whole chapter when the going gets rough.

Coming later today (because the post would be too long if I did it all at once)--a Random Rewind from the summer of 1973.


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