Twelve Years

by Joel Agee

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 520

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.

There are no chapters in the memoir. It is divided chronologically into three sections, three divisions of the titular twelve years. The first section, “1948-1955,” explores the first seven years of Agee’s life with his family in East Berlin, until he is sent away at the age of fifteen to a boarding school in Thuringia. The next section, “1955-1958,” concentrates on the years between age fifteen and age eighteen, years of almost unavoidable failure and increasing sexual longing and frustration. This part relies on substantive passages from Agee’s adolescent journals to textualize the process of remembering. The third section, “1959-1960” (by far the shortest), focuses on his final year in East Germany, spent as a shipyard laborer.

In the first section in particular, Agee investigates not only events and emotions but also the mysterious workings of his memory and its incomprehensible selective process. In the second section, these discursive passages are largely replaced by “documentary” entries from his diaries, including, in particular, a short and poignantly bitter play he has recorded both to illustrate and to distance himself from the horror and the guilt of his parents’ rapidly deteriorating marriage. The third and final section is appropriately less literary; the simplified style and more coherent nature of the prose are in accord with the rhythm of his shipbuilder’s hammer. The memoir ends abruptly; the past self that Agee has re-created moves as unceremoniously into the reader’s past as the train on which he and his mother are installed— they are on the first leg of their journey back to the United States—jerks roughly toward his future. The circular nature of Agee’s experiences is reflected in the structure of his writing.

Twelve Years

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2546

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 copyright has expired, that I am not qualified to try to touch them now.

In 1941 he wrote: “Alma is in Mexico—so is Joel—nominally, presumably, perhaps very probably, that is broken forever.”

Joel Agee’s guilt is at least more reasonable and manageable. He displayed jealous feelings and actions toward Stefan, the younger brother pampered because of chronic illness, but who also succeeded where Joel failed, by producing actual paintings, cartoons, and writing which were circulated among the Uhses’ friends as having a mark of intelligence not evident in Joel’s ventures. Joel labels Stefan the creative one (“Bodo Uhse’s remarkably talented son”) and himself the dreamer (“the problematic and rather woozy stepson”). “It is painful for me to write about Stefan’s very sad childhood in any detail because I contributed to it, both actively and by default, out of jealousy and out of a need to dominate.” As Joel grew into young manhood, however, he found his feelings toward Stefan changing and he relied upon him for enlightening explanations of feelings and emotions he did not understand and with which he lacked the ability to cope.

Haunting Joel Agee’s remembrances is a vague, dreamlike quality that permeates the memoir and enhances the reader’s experience of Twelve Years; this guilt-ridden vagueness is most poignantly apparent in Joel’s penitent search for his stepfather. The déjà vu that haunts Joel Agee extends to his mother Alma. Just as her marriage to James Agee ended because of another woman, so does her life with Bodo Uhse, and she finally makes the decision to leave East Germany and return with her children to America. This separation was traumatic for both Alma and Bodo, and while arrangements were being made for passports, packing, and preparations for travel, Bodo was very ill in a hospital. He had given up hope of keeping the family together, but he sent word to Joel that he wanted to see him. Alma and her friends, feeling she had been grossly wronged, persuaded Joel not to go, a decision he later regretted. “As I said, it was easy, with so much support. But ever since Bodo died, not quite two years ago, the memory of that decision grieves me; for I never saw him again.”

If Joel’s relationship with his stepfather was ambivalent, he enjoyed an easygoing relationship with his mother, who played the viola and included Joel in her associations and performances with other musicians. She was proud when Joel brought her some poetry he claimed to have written, but was extremely disappointed when she found the lines in a book and realized Joel was guilty of plagarism. She was uneasy thereafter whenever Joel brought any of his writing to her, but after assuring herself that another batch of poems was original, she sent them to James Agee. He “conferred the word ’talent’ on me like a badge of honor.”

As a Jew, Alma never felt at home in East Germany. She wore her straight, long, black hair circling her head and pinned so tightly at the temples that her eyes had a slightly slanted appearance. She differed from the East German women in dress and in her use of cosmetics and she had no intention to alter her individuality to conform to the usual unobtrusiveness of women in the society in which she was constrained to live. She looked upon the Germans with derision and remarked on more than one occasion, “Just look at them, the master race.” She impressed upon Joel their heritage.

On several conversations, Alma impressed on me her wish that I take to heart the fact that we were Jewish; and not only that; but that we were Jews in Germany. It meant something. It meant, on the most basic level, that we were different and, perhaps purely by virtue of this difference, in some way nobler, more lovably human, than Germans.

As Alma’s problems with Bodo grew more extreme, her patience with Joel’s lack of work and goals in his life thinned and she became openly critical of him. In the days before their departure for America, as Alma lay weak and haggard, counting the hours until the ordeal of waiting would be over, Joel and his mother regained their close communion.

Joel’s reaction to the prospect of their return to his native land was typical: “To start a new life unencumbered by my long string of failures—in America, where no one would know me! This was nothing less than a complete reprieve.” As Joel talked with his longtime friend, Peter, who was a member of the East German Film Institute and determined to make a name for himself, Peter assessed Joel’s life-style: “The difference between you and me is that you want at all cost to go your way, even though you don’t know what that way is. I want my own way too, but I’m more willing to take direction from others.”

Twelve Years may be read as a spiritual search. Joel Agee, cut off from his writer father by divorce and distance, experienced only once a spiritual encounter with his father, when on his illegal excursions from school he sought the privacy and protection of the woods and read for the first time The Morning Watch.

And it was my father’s writing that had opened my eyes. What other writer could charge words with this kind of magic? None! I felt hugely proud. Was it farfetched to imagine that he had written this for me, or at least with me in mind? Why else would he write about a thirteen-year-old boy? But Alma had told me that Richard, the boy, was really a portrait of my father when he was my age. . . . But if I disregarded the incomprehensible churchy emotions—the constant guilt, the wish to suffer for Jesus, or with him—then I could imagine that I was like Richard, and therefore like my father.

At Agee’s death, however, Joel did not show any particular sadness and his only visible emotion was disappointment that he would not be going to America. Upon receiving a telegram from Jack Burling announcing the posthumous award of the Pulitzer Prize to Agee, Joel’s reaction was: “No, I don’t feel proud. I couldn’t conceive of what it meant to be proud of someone else’s achievement. Glad for them, yes—but proud? Why did he call me Joel Agee and not Joel Uhse, the name he surely knew I had adopted since coming to Germany, and which was printed in my identity papers?” (Readers will note that Agee’s name is on the memoir.) Joel felt that the telegram was a reproach both to Alma and to himself and the meaning he read between the lines was that his father was an American and so was Joel; that Alma should never have left Agee, but that she did not know any better; and that Alma should not have taken Joel to a Communist country. Joel was so angry and upset by the telegram and his misguided interpretation, that he did not want to answer. Persuaded by Bodo and Alma that it would be unkind not to do so, he sent the briefest possible response: “Very happy very proud my father grateful to you stop letter follows Joel.” His reaction after sending the answer was to feel ashamed for betraying his own feelings. Ironically, he felt as Alma and James Agee had wished to him feel at age four, that Bodo was his father, and he was concerned that he had hurt him.

Despite their very different circumstances, a common thread runs through the lives of father and son. James Agee’s poignant descriptions and recurring guilt are echoed in Joel Agee’s Twelve Years. A Death in the Family ends as Rufus, after his father’s funeral, walks with his uncle: “’It’s time to go home,’ and all the way home they walk in silence.” Twelve Years ends: “Now the whistle blows, the station-master holds up his baton, the train jerks into motion, and a moment later the little group of waving figures is abruptly yanked around a curve and into the past.”

Some readers will feel a sadness that James Agee cannot read his son’s adolescent autobiography; he would certainly have identified not only with Joel Agee’s intention, but also with the beautifully written story of search. Whether the similarity between his own life and that of his famous father is a joy or a burden to Joel Agee is unknown. One can only hope that Twelve Years, delightful to read on any level of approach, has served a positive purpose for Joel Agee, that in this book he has focused his past and purged the guilt that prevented his father from performing to his full potential. The evidence in hand is that Joel Agee is a talented writer and the expectation is that he has more to contribute to the literary world.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 87

Adams, P.L. Review in Atlantic Monthly. CCXLVII (June, 1981), p. 101.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXIII, July 22, 1981, p. 17.

Coles, Robert. “Growing Up East German,” in The New York Review of Books. XXXIII (July 16, 1981), p. 49.

National Review. XXXIII, November 27, 1981, p. 1435.

The New Yorker. LVII, May 11, 1981, p. 155.

Reed, J.D. “Young Misfit,” in Time. CXVII (May 11, 1981), p. 90.

Richardson, Jack. “Growing Up German,” in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII (April 26, 1981), p. 12.

Saturday Review. VIII, May, 1981, p. 74.

Street, J.B. Review in Library Journal. CVI (May 1, 1981), p. 106.

Time. CXVII, May 11, 1981, p. 90.

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