Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 430

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The concerns that Agee re-creates in his finely organized network of separate, self-contained memories are not those of political parties: They are the concerns of a typically narcissistic and nihilistic adolescence that has rejected both itself and the adult world to which it paradoxically aspires.

Agee’s unattainable boyhood goal seems to be to forsake the childish realms of virginal ignominy without passing through the equally offensive gates of responsible maturity. The painfully slow resolution of this problematic dilemma occurs in the social and political climate of East Germany after the war, and to this extent, Agee chronicles not only his own development but also that of his adopted home. Still, Twelve Years never attempts to answer the question “What was East Germany like between the years of 1948 and 1960?” Instead, the memoir is a response to Agee’s own internal quest for memory, an answer to a self-posed question: “What did it feel like to grow up in East Germany between the years of 1948 and 1960?” The location is not central, but never irrelevant, to the author’s primary goal: the literary re-creation of his former boyhood self.

Twelve Years is not intended as a political or sociological document, but as an artistic re-creation and interpretation of a former self via the paths of memory. Literary accuracy, the correspondence between the written word and the event, between the expression and the experience, was Agee’s principal goal, and the formal beauty of the prose is generally acknowledged by most readers, although some have found fault with an autobiography that is so clearly “self-absorbed . . . in a world raw from its recent history and pervaded with politics.”

East German texts are often devoured by their cultural context; American texts often ignore theirs. Joel Agee’s sensitively written autobiography provides the best of both worlds: a memoir that chronicles the development of a child and a country, devoid of bitterness or propaganda yet filled with a “reflective political intelligence” and an engaging sense of self-parody. Agee documents the cultural conflicts that informed his youth with a perplexingly aggressive, yet understated, humor, best exemplified, perhaps, in his description of members of the East German intelligentsia battling one another for hotels and utilities around an American Monopoly game board. The work strives to address universal questions of adolescence and identity while recording the writer’s self-conscious quest for the script of his own memories. Twelve Years is a work which has earned consideration in many critical contexts: theoretical, literary, and sociopolitical. It is a welcome and finely crafted addition to the genre of the literary memoir.