Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1487
The narrative opens as Joel Agee Uhse sets out with his parents and his stepbrother on the Russian freighter Dmitry Donskoy. The family is embarking on a journey from Mexico to Leningrad, and then on to the small East German village of Gross-Glienicke. Aware of the conscious and necessarily literary act of remembering, Agee “casts out the net for memories.” The reader is made pointedly aware of the writer’s struggle to grasp the truth of his own experience.
Agee is often a frustrated witness to his known yet unremembered past. Unable to control the quixotic wellsprings of his memory, he is concerned with documenting not only his past but also the inevitable present-tense frustrations of the artist engaged in the act of writing autobiography. He is puzzled by his inability to focus his inner eye on his stepfather, and he investigates the ambiguity of his own recollection. At times, it seems that Agee is no more certain of the reality of his past experience than of the reality of his younger brother’s many imaginary friends. He ponders the reasons for “the spectral impression” of Bodo Ushe’s presence and the tenuousness of his early memories in general.
In these passages, Agee is investigating the whole genre of autobiography—not only his particular boyhood. He deliberately involves the reader in the immediacy of the textual act of re-creation, while his unrelenting search for the truth of the past gives rise to some of the most lyrical passages in the work: “Trying to remember the village from which I’ve been absent for so long, I find myself floating over it, like a ghost. But it’s difficult to haunt a past that is itself becoming ghost-like, losing its features.”
Limited by chronological boundaries, the composition of the text as a whole relies heavily on juxtaposition and association. Disparate “swatches” of memories, impressions, and events are arranged to reflect the pattern of the author’s life, in a narrative quilt that lacks one clear overriding and coherent style. Moments of high comedy alternate with moments of crude realism and tragic vision. Agee’s efforts at lyrical evocation are not always completely successful. For the most part, however, the almost pedantic attention to the stylistic details of each individual section of prose lends the work a kind of narrative unity. Leitmotifs throughout the work, such as his mother’s predilection for New Orleans jazz and American dancing, also serve to bond Agee’s separate memories into the general fabric of the text.
The failure of Agee’s poetic aspirations is a consistent theme in the text. The natural son of one of the most famous and most troubled American writers, and the stepson of an acclaimed East German critic and writer of social realist novels, Agee is stifled between the extremes of his own expectations and the expectations of those around him. The stepson of one of the privileged “intelligentsia,” one of the first literary families of the East German state, Agee never sparkles with that flash of genius—a genius he perceives and envies in his stepbrother. Agee’s first literary act is to copy out a Rudyard Kipling poem and present it as his own, and from that moment on, he can find no public poetic voice which will earn for him the admiration he so craves. All of his efforts toward artistic fulfillment end in failure and in an intolerable sense of personal ignominy. These artistic difficulties are paralleled and reflected in his stepfather’s inability to satisfy the state’s literary expectations by producing those tomes for which he has already received payment.
Agee never seeks exculpation for his literary failings in sociopolitical musings. His inadequacies of talent are presented with all the terrible finality of an adolescent consciousness: They are intensely personal failures, symptomatic of the more general failure of his own private and public self. In fact, Twelve Years is written in the tradition of the novel of the antihero, the promising but doggedly failing young man whose existence belies his potential. After he has initial success in the eighth grade, Agee’s academic career takes a decided turn for the worse. He cannot interest himself in the boringly adult responsibilities of schoolwork, the repetitious monotony of English, math, and chemistry. Yet, even as he sabotages all possibilities for his own success, he dreams of recognition and longs to be known as a witty sophisticate in his parents’ intellectual world. Daydreaming and a dedicated truancy mark his unhappy struggles with the socialized remnants of the Prussian education system.
Agee feels as stigmatized by these failures as he does by the indelible stain of his virginity. His plans for a pleasurable initiation into the world of adult sexuality, his urgent need to establish his manhood (and thereby achieve a sense of personal validity), is the one sustaining goal of his adolescent consciousness. The recollected progression of his pornographic dreams and fantasies, masturbatory triumphs, and humiliating encounters with a selection of temptresses occupies a major part of the work. The autobiography depicts the universal agonies and concerns of adolescence, concerns which recognize no cultural or political borders, reflecting events which could have taken place in New Jersey, rather than in East Berlin and Thuringia.
Indeed, several critics have commented on the inappropriateness of Agee’s emphasis on developmental concerns, given the geopolitical setting of his autobiography. Yet while the memoir can in no way be classified as a sociopolitical document, Agee’s recorded experiences necessarily reflect the political conditions and upheavals of the time—translated and transposed into the quotidian realm; indeed, deft use of juxtaposition renders authorial comment unnecessary. His boyishly naive recollections of postwar life in the privileged village of Gross-Glienicke resonate with the peculiar paradoxes typical of the East Germans’ ambiguous relationship with the occupying Soviet forces. His instinctive reactions to the West, to all that was “over there”—accessible and yet untempting—foster greater insight into the complexities of the situation than any political record.
His reactions reflect a boyish loyalty to his home, and to the established philosophies of his home, rather than an indoctrinated political position. Joseph Stalin’s death is important to him because school is canceled for a week, but still he judges the Western celebrations to be rather churlish. He and his friend Peter always defended the political status quo against the “reactionaries” among their peers, yet both must stand trial before a tribunal of Communist Party members for their decadent petite bourgeoise schoolboy antics. References to the blatantly elitist social system and the explosive political climate appear in the text as personal memories, recorded because of their emotional, rather than their political, significance. Agee’s confusion and terror during the Hungarian uprisings are revealed in a desperate present-tense journal entry:Meanwhile, the West broadcasts dramatic and, I suspect, invented appeals from alleged rebel radio stations in Hungary. Who to believe in? One side lies, the other keeps silent. Is our silence not deception as well? . . . I’m afraid the West might see its chance here to deliver a decisive blow against the suddenly vulnerable Soviet Union. But that would mean a world war. God protect us!
His stepfather had even hidden a bottle of chloroform “with the idea of killing us and himself in case of a Fascist takeover: he was afraid we would be tortured.”
The title’s emphasis on the “American-ness” of this particular boyhood has been judged by some to be catchpenny and improbable, for the young Agee was only one year old when he departed the United States, and he soon felt very much at home among the privileged intelligentsia of the new East German regime. Yet while it is true that the major concerns of the work are with the general themes of adolescence and autobiography, it is also true that Agee’s first halting German words, “Ich bin ein Amerikaner,” proclaim him alien, as does his obvious relationship to his irrepressibly un-German mother. On another level, his refusal to conform to the mores of the school and social system brand him as “bourgeois” and “bohemian,” terms which are in turn linked to decadent American behavior.
At the conclusion of the Party tribunal, convened because of his all too apparent incorrigibility, one of the teachers argues for immediate expulsion, on the grounds that “keeping this young man and his like in our schools . . . will continue to infect the student body with the virus of bourgeois individualism.” Reprimands notwithstanding, Agee continues on his appointed path to failure, and the reader may speculate that perhaps these particular labels had an unperceived, positive resonance for the first son of James Agee, as he battled himself and his environs to establish his own true identity. At any rate, it is significant that at the time of preparing the manuscript he is again Joel Agee, and no longer the Joel Uhse of his memoir.
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