Twelve Years: An American Boyhood in East Germany is an autobiographical account of eight-year-old Joel Agee’s move in the fall of 1948 from Mexico to Gross-Glienicke, a village bisected by the East-West border, twenty miles from Berlin, and the twelve years he spent in East Germany.
Joel Agee was the stepson of Bodo Uhse, a German Communist writer who had been living in exile for fifteen years in Mexico. During his exile he married Joel’s mother, Alma, an American Jew, and they added to the family another son, Stefan. Missing his homeland, Uhse felt the political climate in Europe was right for his return.
Twelve Years, a first book for Joel Agee, now forty-two, is appealingly unique in its setting. Superficially this autobiography exhibits the clichés of the adolescent searching for identity, but Joel Agee’s search was considerably more difficult because he was growing up in a society where the individual’s growth was subordinate to that of the community and because his own needs were subjective and artistically sensitive. Historically, those years covered a period when Joseph Stalin died, Nikita Khrushchev denounced him, and Soviet tanks invaded Hungary. Many of Bodo Uhse’s dissident, intellectual friends were tried and sent to jail, and Uhse, because of his political affiliations, was uneasy about his own future and that of his family.
On a personal level, Twelve Years details Agee’s relationships with members of his family; his friendships; his problems and failures in a series of schools because of his penchant for playing hooky, neglecting his studies, and playing pranks on his teachers; his inability to function productively in the working world; and his half-hearted participation in the Young Pioneers and the Free German Youth. In contrast to the normal everyday activities of home, school, summertime soccer games, yearnings for girls and sexual fulfillment, is the sense of failure that plagues Joel. “My fourteen-year-old world was bleak indeed.”
As Joel sees his friends mature, take up careers, marry, and engage in a settled family-style life, his own situation becomes even more bleak to him: “The real disorder was in me; I had no purpose in life. The idea of suicide began to appeal to me, not just for the soothing balm of self-pity, but for the apparent logic of it.” Joel’s self-image was summed up in a line he found in a collection of American Indian poetry: “Above my head I can hear the terrible sound of the wings of failure.”
Adolescent autobiographies usually fall into three categories: the early years of a writer well known to the literary world (Wright Morris’s Will’s Boy, 1981); an autobiographical account written for a young audience (Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, 1967); or a classical fictional rendering (J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, 1951). Twelve Years is specifically none of these, although it may be read with enjoyment by young readers, and the unknown Agee says in his remarks on the book that he has “taken liberties of fiction . . . I have changed names, I have transplanted heads, bodies, attitudes.” Given these particulars, one wonders what the audience might be for such a book and, more important, why Agee wrote it. With these questions in mind, the reader must look below the superficial level to experience the full impact and implications of Twelve Years.
Joel Agee, named for his paternal grandfather, Joel Tyler, is the son of James Agee, the legendary author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) and A Death in the Family (1957), and his second wife, Alma Mailman. Joel was separated from his father in his first year when his parents were divorced. He spent a short time with him in New York when he was four; although during this visit a close and loving relationship developed, Alma and James Agee thought it wise not to reveal that Agee was Joel’s father. Since Alma had by then married Bodo Uhse and Joel would be living with them, they considered it best for Joel to accept Bodo as his father. Joel was eventually told about his American father, and though there was communication between them through the books and gifts which James Agee sent to his son, letters between Alma and Agee, and plans for Joel to live in the United States with his father for a time, James Agee’s death put an end to any further plans and Joel never saw his father again.
It is especially curious then that Joel displays many of his father’s personal characteristics and emulates not only his talent for writing, but his choice of material as well. Twelve Years appears to have been written out of the same compulsion as James Agee’s The Morning Watch (1950) and A Death in the Family—the compulsion to investigate a personal past through writing. Throughout Joel Agee’s narration runs the same strain as is found in James Agee’s life: tomorrow will be different; tomorrow my life will take a different path, a new beginning. Tomorrow, always tomorrow. Twelve Years is an attempt to recapture an after-the-fact, important time, but a somewhat wasted, sometimes elusive, even lost time. It is an attempt to reconstruct events that years later nag at the mind as important, to reevaluate feelings, memories, and attitudes, and above all, to assuage the compulsive guilt that plagues the son as it did the father.
James Agee’s guilt and his masochistic need to punish himself was an abstract guilt, a guilt he talked about a great deal but could neither explain nor control. This guilt was hard to deal with because it never took a concrete, intelligible form. Certainly he felt the failures of his marriages, but one failure did not prevent the next. Although when he died he left four children, little can be found to establish any evidence of a personal relationship with them. On March 8, 1940, Agee, in a letter to his friend Father Flye, writes of Joel’s impending birth:
Our child will be born within a short time now—a week or two. On that I feel such complications of hope, fear, joy, sorrow, life, death, foreboding, interest, and a dozen other true emotions on which the...