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1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol, and the Birth of Post-Sixties America

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1973 marked the end of the 1960s and the birth of a new cultural sensibility. A year of shattering political crisis, 1973 was defined by defeat in Vietnam, Roe v. Wade, the oil crisis and the Watergate hearings. It was also a year of remarkable creative ferment. From landmark movies such as The Exorcist, Mean Streets, and American Graffiti to seminal books such as Fear of Flying and Gravity's Rainbow, from the proto-punk band the New York Dolls to the first ever reality TV show, The American Family, the cultural artifacts of the year reveal a nation in the middle of a serious identity crisis. 1973 Nervous Breakdown offers a fever chart of a year of uncertainty and change, a year in which post-war prosperity crumbled and modernism gave way to postmodernism in a lively and revelatory analysis of one of the most important periods in the second half of the 20th century.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Smart and insightful…[1973 Nervous Breakdown] leave[s] the reader with a palpable sense of how the legacy of the 70's...reverberates to this day in America."--Michiko Kakutani, New YorkTimes

"[A] high-definition snapshot, both nostalgic and perceptive, of a transitional time."
--Library Journal (starred review)

"What makes 1973 a novel contribution to the genre is Killen's assured, interdisciplinary approach to the material. With recurring themes of paranoia, surveillance and fame, the author ties together many seemingly disparate phenomena with much aplomb."
--Time Out Chicago

Jonathan Yardley
Thus the way to read 1973 Nervous Breakdown is to ignore the attempts at pigeon-holing and concentrate on Killen's broader arguments. Two of them strike me as especially sound. One is that, during this time, "American youth was perceived as under assault, alarmingly fragile, in need of increasingly extreme forms of intervention." Killen seizes on Patricia Hearst and the emotions her abduction aroused as emblematic of this, and perhaps he's right: "This story offered itself up to the American public as the consummate account of snapping: a cautionary tale about the radical transformation of the self under the influence of a powerful cult of personality and action." Many young Americans were "vulnerable to strange belief-systems" -- Moonies, Hare Krishnas, extreme fundamentalist Christian groups -- making this a matter of great concern to parents and authorities. The astonishing popularity of the film "The Exorcist," with its nightmares of demonic possession, was evidence of both the fascination and the apprehension that this phenomenon aroused.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
According to CCNY assistant history professor Killen, 1973 was "a cultural watershed, a moment of major realignments and shifts in American politics, culture, and society," and he examines these transformations in a series of essays. Andy Warhol's Interview magazine chronicled America's obsession with celebrity culture, from its homage to screen icons like Marilyn Monroe to its sympathetic portrayal of gender-bending trash-rock band the New York Dolls. The year 1973 also saw the rise of Ted Patrick, who claimed to have deprogrammed over 100 young people who had fallen into the clutches of religious cults, and the transformation of Vietnam War POWs into heroes as a Watergate-embroiled Nixon sought to bask in their reflected glory. The best pieces focus on PBS's trailblazing reality TV show An American Family, and the media's progressive invasion of American lives. Disasters and hijackings made air travel a flash point for extreme fear. Although his prose is frequently opaque and stilted, and his selection of 1973 seems arbitrary (why not 1974, the year of Patty Hearst's kidnapping and Nixon's resignation?), the perceptive Killen sheds welcome light on our collective experience. (Apr.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Yes, here is another serious book that extols the significance of the 1970s in American cultural, political, and social history. Unlike books that cover the decade (e.g., Edward D. Berkowitz's Something Happened: A Political and Cultural Overview of the Seventies), Killen (history, City Coll. of New York) focuses on just one pivotal year that included such landmarks as the Watergate hearings, Roe v. Wade, the Arab oil embargo, and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam. There was also a rise in urban decay, violent crime, drug use, and neoconservatism. Killen deftly identifies "signposts" as he surveys this "moment of major realignment and shifts in American politics, culture, and society." He looks at the movies, novels, and music of that year (e.g., Scorsese, De Lillo, the New York Dolls) to discover interesting connections with the year's political events. Long essays examine airplane crashes and hijackings, the PBS series An American Family, the release of Vietnam War POWs, religious cults and deprogramming, Andy Warhol's cult of celebrity, the impact of American Graffiti and Badlands, and Watergate and the appeal of conspiracy theories. The result is a high-definition snapshot, both nostalgic and perceptive, of a transitional time. In an epilog, Killen uses the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army to explain the rise of Reagan conservatism. An important contribution to the literature of American studies; highly recommended for academic and large public libraries.-Thomas A. Karel, Franklin & Marshall Coll. Lib., Lancaster, PA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
As those who were there know, 1973 wasn't just about platforms and the Bay City Rollers. It was much weirder than all that, as Killen (History/City College of New York) chronicles, arguing that the year was a watershed during which the countercultural glories of the '60s crashed into the autism of the '70s, which would unfold in the reactionary '80s. Killen eschews firsthand memories, so he may not have been around to observe the weirdness up close, but he gamely re-creates the time; his opening montage of the death of baseball great Roberto Clemente, the opening of DFW and the hijacking rage is lovely. Whether 1973 was really a watershed is debatable, and Killen wisely brackets events with glimpses of '72 and '74, but he makes interesting connections along the way. It's not news that An American Family, starring Lance Loud and his unhappy kin, was the first reality show; it is news to learn that Loud, no mere documentary subject, was playing to the camera in ways that he had learned from Andy Warhol-and not just from studying The Factory from afar, but from having corresponded with Warhol directly. (Those precocious teenagers of teenage-centric 1973!) The birth of media addiction aside, Killen makes a winning case, too, for seeing 1973 as a harbinger of our times in the matter of belief, charting the rise not just of Me Decade cults such as est but also of fundamentalist Christianity and offshoots such as the Children of God and the Moonies. There are a few false notes along the way (for one, the New York Dolls were never really popular, even in New York), but the author does a good job overall of keeping his narrative on track with his thesis, which should make no one nostalgic for thetime of the SLA and dawning disco. A smart if somewhat disjointed blend of social history and cultural criticism, far truer to the time than David Frum's tsk-tsking How We Got Here (2000).
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781596910607
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • Publication date: 4/3/2007
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 802,328
  • Product dimensions: 5.37 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.82 (d)

Meet the Author

Andreas Killen is Assistant Professor of History at the City College of New York. He is the author of Berlin Electropolis, and his writing has appeared in Salon and the New York Times Magazine.

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