The bad news is I’ve been spending a lot of time at the dentist. The good news is, with his office located down the street from a newly remodeled branch of the public library, I can easily pop in before or after appointments and help myself to a few books. Last time I did this, I grabbed a copy of 1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol, and the Birth of Post-Sixties America. After having great luck with Fred Kaplan’s 1959: The Year Everything Changed and 1968: The Year That Rocked the World I figured why not. In their respective books, Kaplan and Kurlansky skillfully and entertainingly argued the events that occurred and forces that were unleashed over the course of those two different years were hugely responsible for shaping today’s world. As I walked out of the library with 1973 Nervous Breakdown in my hands I wondered to myself what Killen would say about 1973 and how it changed America.
As promised, Killen, in his 2006 book examines the major events and personalities at play in 1973. While I thought 1973 had its shortcomings, overall I felt Killen did an admirable job examining an important yet overlooked period of America’s history: a period that some historians probably feel is too recent for scholarly research while some journalists and essayists feel is not contemporary enough to warrant attention.
There’s much I liked about 1973. His chapter on the repatriation of the Vietnam War POWs might have been my favorite of the whole book, since it contained a lot of information that was new to me. (For instance, I had no idea various political factions arose among the POWs during their imprisonment. With the officer-rank fighter pilots taking a hawkish stance while the enlisted ground troops adopting a sympathetic, almost anti-war stance the imprisoned POW population was in effect a microcosm of the American public with its divided opinion on the war.) I also enjoyed the chapter on the motion picture industry. I was surprised to learn that according to Killen, the early 70s was a brief but somewhat chaotic transition period for the industry. The conservative and sclerotic studios were faced with not only competition from television but growing alienation by the nation’s youth who felt alienated by Hollywood’s instance on making movies that were out of touch with the times. In desperation, the studios turned over the means of production to a small group of young directors like Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas to help produce a new crop of bold and innovative films. However, after a brief interregnum the old guard, backed by a combination of corporate financing and aggressive and sophisticated marketing tactics would soon recapture the industry.
Other aspects of the book I didn’t like as much. I thought Killen spent too much time talking about the Andy Warhol New York art scene. While Warhol’s enshrinement of the cult of celebrity certainly resonates today, the early punk band New York Dolls did not significantly impact the music world outside New York. (One could argue, thanks to the efforts of Warhol and his contemporaries, other and more influential acts would spring from this environment, bands like the Talking Heads, Blondie and the Ramones.) Instead, I thought Killen could have devoted more time to Roe v. Wade and Nixon’s visit to China. Lastly, like some reviewers I found his writing a bit dense at times. A little additional editing certainly would not have hurt things.
Despite its flaws, I still came away from Killen’s book with a greater understanding of the significance of what was going on in 1973. It also fired me up to read other books about the 1970s like David Frum’s How We Got Here: The 70s The Decade That Brought You Modern Life — For Better Or Worse, Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class and Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century. Someday maybe soon, I will.