In Her First American, Lore Segal has drawn a portrait of American society in the 1950’s through the eyes of a young immigrant. The discovery of Ilonka (Ilka) Weissnix, twenty-one, of what it means to be an American encompasses the unraveling of complex dilemmas: of language and customs, of sexuality, of blacks versus whites, of past and present, of blacks and Jews, of love.
Language itself defines the situations, predicaments, and possibilities of the characters. The author’s language is expanded to include black slang, Midwestern dialect, political rhetoric, the foreigner’s tongue; yet, it is also restricted to designate the characters’ place in time. At the novel’s inception, for example, is an abundant use of American idioms and clichés, portraying and intensifying Ilka’s difficulties in comprehending a new language. The language that will illuminate issues of concern to Ilka as the novel—and her Americanization—progresses remains here ambiguous.
Here is Ilka’s immediate concern as she attempts to make literal sense out of the colloquialisms of the day: How to understand and be understood, how to belong.
So intense are Ilka’s aspirations that she undertakes a journey by train out west “for American conversation.” On this trip, Ilka meets Carter Bayoux, a once-prominent black writer, teacher, and political figure, who is to play a major role in her new life: explaining lingo, defining terms, and teaching Ilka the nuances surrounding black and white relations, sex, and love.
While Carter, as a black, is resigned to accepting a “second-class” citizenship, in Ilka’s eyes he is simply a “big American,” who she believes will offer her “those refined grandeurs of places, persons, passions, virtues that she had in mind for herself.”
Ilka, in fact, appears quite unconcerned about Carter’s race; when they first meet, it is his size and age that are most significant. At their second meeting, Ilka begins to suspect that Carter, although light-skinned, is black, but does not, herself, see it.
Ilka’s inability to perceive accurately color distinctions among peoples provides a sharp contrast with the reality of a divided society and its effects. As she moves from a state of innocence—“Ilka had learned she didn’t know a Negro when she saw one”—to a growing awareness, Ilka’s sensitivity to such differences remains undeveloped. Carter, meanwhile, moves steadily toward self-destruction, as he seeks solace in alcohol for his own limitations and those imposed upon him by society. A black with considerable “success,” Carter’s public behavior is based largely on protocol—what he defines as “the art of notliving by natural human feeling.” In private, however, he resorts to drink. A tragic, but likeable, figure whom Ilka will outgrow, Carter provides a unique transition point in Ilka’s life.
Carter’s anguish appears to be that he is a black stifled in a white society; Ilka’s, that she is not Americanized. It is Ilka’s intense desire to blend into American society—to be homogeneous—that prohibits her from judging differences in race or color. In Ilka’s eyes, everyone is simply an American.
What is expected of Ilka is not forthcoming. There is a tendency to read into Ilka’s character the effects of a haunted past. Tormented, isolated, unaccepted herself as a Jew, Ilka does not appear to have been left with either a basic mistrust of human intention or an understanding of Carter’s predicament. Instead, Ilka seems affected more by the element of danger in her relationship with Carter. She naïvely muses about the nature of their intimacy: “It seemed wonderful to Ilka that she had come all the way from Vienna, and was getting to know Carter Bayoux’s several pajamas.”
If there is a void in the understanding of Ilka’s character it is this: the lack of knowledge of her experiences during the war and the influence of these events on her thoughts, motivations, and life philosophy. One is drawn to Ilka in her present state only, and this present appears to be without a past. This is, however, possible to understand: Not until she reaches America does Ilka have the opportunity—in the land of opportunity—to grow up. For her, the war years have stifled growth and development. It is only in America, and through her association with Carter Bayoux, that Ilka becomes a woman.
The love affair between Ilka and Carter is the vehicle through which the author allows her characters to grow and change. Through the development of character, the author reveals the concept of individualization amid desperate desires to assimilate. Carter’s degradation appears...