Twelve Years Critical Essays

Joel Agee


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 1487 words.)