James Agee was a writer of strong talent and many interests, but when he died at forty-five he was by no means the master of his discerning, anguished intellect, not to mention his tempestuous emotions. Even at Harvard he had called attention to himself by the way he lived as well as by his abilities. Until heart disease slowed him down (and eventually killed him) he was much talked about as an insomniac, hard-drinking poet, novelist, and critic, and he was also well known as a film scriptwriter and essayist. An iconoclast, a rule-breaker, a performer, he was a visionary barely able to keep ahead of his own demons. Many of those who admired his prose viewed his life with pity or outright disapproval, thinking of the waste, the promise only partially fulfilled.
When James Agee died in 1955, he was living with his third wife, Mia, and their three small children. By Alma, his second wife, he had become the father of a son, Joel, born in 1940, when the long struggle with the writing of his book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was finally being put aside rather than won. By 1944 Alma had left him—angry, she told an interviewer in the recent documentary film Agee, because of her husband’s unwillingness to settle into a stable family life. She took their son to Mexico, there met and married Bodo Uhse, a writer and longtime communist who had fled his native Germany when Hitler came to power. In 1948 the Uhses (including a baby son, Stefan) returned to East Germany on a Soviet freighter. Joel took his stepfather’s name, became a resident of Gross-Glienicke, a town near Berlin and at the outermost edge of the Soviet zone. He already spoke English and Spanish; he now began mastering German. He became, ostensibly, a German child whose family belonged to the privileged communist intelligentsia.
Joel Agee is now over forty. He describes his autobiographical memoir, in a subtitle, as “an American boyhood in East Germany.” He apparently wants to connect his own childhood with conflicts of recent decades: Western capitalism and democracy as against Eastern socialism, with its ever-present bureaucratic centralism. Before we read of his life, however, we are told this:
Everything in this book is true, but not everything is precisely factual. While none of the events described are fictitious, I have taken liberties of fiction to disguise the identity of most characters outside my immediate family: I have changed names, I have transposed heads, bodies, attitudes. Place names have occasionally been altered for the same reason. Here and there, I chose to imagine the nuance of a gesture or look or utterance rather than bore the reader with repeated complaints about my spotty recollection. By far the greater part of my story, though, is faithful to the facts and their chronology. Foremost among my intentions, throughout the book, was finding the right word, the right phrase and image, to render as honestly as I could the essential atmosphere, conflicts, and hopes of those twelve years as I remember them.
An interesting avowal. One understands the need to shield certain people from totalitarian revenge, and to protect the privacy of those one has watched and learned from. But why the distinction between truth and factuality? Mr. Agee is not a journalist, has no intention of documenting the facts of a given news story. He is relying upon a kind of witness—his memory, as it has been shaped by a moral intelligence. Ought we now ask our children to keep tape recorders handy, lest in future years they stumble into the terrible trap of “fiction” as they try to recall a conversation or a moment of action? Subjectivity and imagination have yet to be declared enemies of what is “true.” The oddly apologetic tone in Mr. Agee’s preliminary note reminds us how hard it is, these days, to take anything for granted—even the right of a well-intentioned writer to turn his own childhood recollections into an interesting story.
Agee evidently feels he must explain the way his mind works. When he draws on an early image of his stepfather he points out that it is “probably the composite of many nearly identical moments.” At another point he remarks upon how “strange” it is—“the way memories cluster and illuminate one another, or even blend, as if whatever agency handles the punctilious business of storing up the past had at some point lapsed into reverie and become more mindful of meaning than accuracy.” Twelve Years contains a great deal of such “reverie.” The risk, of course, is self-indulgence—especially so when the essential story of the autobiography is one of youthful searching. There aren’t any chapters in the book, only three sections whose titles are certain years: 1948-1955, 1955-1958, and finally, 1959-1960. But Agee immediately holds the reader’s attention, maintaining a wry distance from his story of how he became aware of himself and his odd situation between the ages of eight and twenty. He has no interest in sentiment, or in showing himself to be a genius in the making. His book is in the American tradition of the distinctly unpromising hero, the slightly sad, perplexed youth who doesn’t quite know where he belongs and what he ought to do; the sort of child who once prompted heads to shake because he didn’t quite “fit,” and who now would provoke his parents to call up the local child-guidance clinic.
He mentions his “pushy superiority”; he observes that his jealousy of his brother “materialized as physical disgust.” He wants to win over the reader by showing himself as a ne’er-do-well who had some funny and not so funny adventures and emerged successfully after all—by being cool and knowing at just the right moments.
Nowhere is Agee’s writing better than in his account of a Mexican scene before he went to Germany:
The rat swam in slow circles, drawing a line in the water with its long, pink tail. The boys threw stones at it, big stones and little stones. Some stones splashed into the water, and some hit the rat with a thud, and often the rat would squeal when it was hit. The boys kept running off to collect stones and stuff their pockets with them, but there were always enough boys around the puddle to keep the rat inside. One of the richer boys had a slingshot, and he was a smart shot and got a lot of applause. He was using marbles, an impressive gesture because they were worth something, and he hit the rat with terrible accuracy and force, you could see its little head snap back, and for a moment it seemed, and I hoped, that it was dead. But then it started swimming again. It was bleeding from the mouth and one eye was smashed, everyone pointed that out. The rat came up to the sidewalk where I was standing, rose on its hind legs, and curled its incredibly delicate pink fingers around the edge of the curb; its mouth was open, I could see its pink tongue, its whiskers, the smashed eye; and the other, myopically blinking eye seemed to be looking up at our faces. Someone took me firmly by the elbow, and only then did I realize that I had bent over a little and started reaching out to the rat.
The death of a verminous creature somehow is intended to remind us of how vile and murderous human beings can be—how quickly we grab at excuses that will help us do needless harm to others, while justifying ourselves. All through his book Agee circles around that theme, though never didactically. The birds in Germany replace the Mexican rats as victims. The boy shudders as he learns of Nazi death camps and, soon enough, Stalinist murder. The East German government, he tells us, made a strong effort to wipe out the Nazi legacy of anti-Semitism and to promote a conviction of equality among school children. But he notices how lucky, how privileged his parents are, not to mention the parents of his friends:
Ulla was spoiled, incidentally, because the state spoiled her parents: they owned a Mercedes, their back yard was a small park, their villa could have housed two families twice their size, and they had another house near the Baltic Sea, and a sailboat. How else to keep an eminent brain surgeon from going to the West to get rich?
Agee tells how earnestly he tried to defend the validity of communist slogans against his own growing realization that much was askew in a proclaimed socialist republic. He belonged to the Young Pioneers, to the Free German Youth. When doubts arose, when glaring social mischief or political duplicity appeared, there were always official rationalizations and excuses. Look, he would be told, at what the Germans had done to Russia—any continuing Soviet appropriation of East German wealth was therefore unquestionably defensible. As for Khrushchev’s stunning revelations of Stalinist terror in 1956, “What capitalist government could boast of such candid, courageous self-criticism?”
In time, though, the author became fed up with all the talk of Selbstkritik. He had watched too many people ingratiate themselves with his parents, grovel before them and others of their class. “In my opinion,” he blurted out one day, “self-criticism is just hypocrisy.” But he shows how he was himself smug and self-important—hard on the weaknesses and flaws of others and taking some satisfaction in passing judgments on himself. He judged his own adolescent journal to be “arrogant”; he was quite prepared to issue “pompous pronouncements.” The ideological self-criticism which communist officials have forced upon their opponents and their victims had its counterpart in Agee’s private ruminations, as he tried to make ethical sense of evidence his eyes and ears couldn’t stop accumulating.
Agee was an independent spirit. He trusted his own aspirations and urges more than the conventional promises of the social order. He wanted, early on, to be a writer, and did not surrender that hope, notwithstanding the insistence of the authorities that he settle down, learn mathematics, chemistry, or biology. He thought a great deal about sex, allowing erotic adventures and fantasies to consume the energies that many of his classmates (especially the scholars and the athletes) learned to tame. Inevitably, he became a problem to his teachers, to his parents. He tried to appear aloof, ironic, a boy intellectual; on the other hand, he was forever trying to hug and kiss, to get laid.
His brother had severe asthma, and their parents increasingly quarreled. When their marriage fell apart, in 1960, his mother, who had been born in America, showed up with her son, who had also been born in America, at the US consulate in West Berlin. The infamous wall had yet to be built, and they were issued passports. Agee had by then dropped out of school, become a shipyard worker, finally gone to bed with a woman. All the while he kept making entries in his journals—ideas and observations he hoped later to redeem in some literary form. Of course, others had different expectations of him: “In a few years,” he was told by a friend’s mother, “you will have gotten to know capitalism at first hand, not just theoretically. And with your experience of life in a socialist country, you’ll be in a position to become a very fine Marxist indeed.”
Before the author left East Germany he had already become a better Marxist than that nation’s officialdom would have thought desirable. For all his protestations of boredom or aimless self-regard, for all his dreams of personal glory (as opposed to collectivist self-submergence), he had developed a robust conscience, a reflective political intelligence. The journal reveals a morally serious young mind that can’t let go of its own continuing perception of the various ways people deceive and bully themselves and others. This is what is “true” in Twelve Years—a kind of side-long knowledge modestly offered.
As a result Agee helps us to comprehend not only East Germany’s life but our own when he describes the constant pressure of Western clothes, music, popular culture that no wall can withstand. He has a muscular humor. He plays off English and German wonderfully, to the point that the fumbling, nondescript Tom Sawyer starts resembling the shrewd, self-assured Mark Twain whose essay on “The Awful German Language” offered a hilarious examination of the conceits of one tongue as observed by someone who is not native to it. Joel Agee has learned to parody himself as well as others, and turn to good advantage his stumbling youth.
July 16, 1981