Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Twelve Years is a lyrical evocation of Joel Agee’s passage toward manhood; it is a moving autobiographical record of the failures, fumbles, and epiphanies of a boy who lands in the Soviet sector of East Germany in 1948, when he is eight years old. The boy is in the company of his mother, his stepbrother, and his stepfather, Bodo Uhse. Uhse, an “Old Communist,” and those like him, who “had fled and fought the Nazis, . . . were expected to be the leaders of the New Germany, which would be built on the ruins of the old.” For the next twelve years, until his family is finally wrenched apart by the failure of his parents’ marriage, Agee is shaped by the disappointments and repercussions of his uncontrollable adolescent individuality in a restrictive sociopolitical climate.

Following the well-known traditions of the literary self-portrait, Agee reveals himself as a benighted, sexually frustrated “young misfit,” a transplanted Huckleberry Finn who struggles to find his elusive identity and its particular artistic voice just as wretchedly as he struggles to lose his virginity. These are struggles that are neither won nor lost within the boundaries of the text, for when the twenty-year-old high school dropout turned shipyard laborer, Joel Uhse—as he is known in East Germany—leaves his home of twelve years for the United States in 1960, his identity as a man and an artist is not yet firmly established.

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(The entire section is 520 words.)