Her First American

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Twenty-one year old Ilka Weissnix arrives in Yew York after a lifetime as a refugee in war-torn Europe. Yet the New York surrounding her cousin Fishgoppel’s apartment is peopled with refugees like herself, making it more Viennese than American. In search of the real America, Ilka takes a train West. On her way home, she meets Carter Bayoux, a black journalist whose alcoholism has destroyed a promising career. It is Carter who introduces Ilka to America: He takes her to jazz clubs in Harlem and concerts at Carnegie Hall, they attend the Jet Fashion Ball and a Fifth Avenue wedding.

As Ilka comes to know her new country, she encounters prejudice against blacks and the prejudice of blacks toward whites. In the process, she also learns more about herself as a Jew. Yet as Ilka grows more Americanized, Carter sinks deeper into his alcoholic miasma. The scenes describing his bourbon-soaked bouts of insomnia are painfully real. Indeed, all of the characterizations in this novel are utterly real. Segal, has perfectly captured Ilka’s innocent quest for naturalization and Carter’s self-destructive binges. Even minor characters such as Ilka’s mother, driven mad by her experiences in the Holocaust, or Ferdinand Zambizi, an African ambassador married to Carter’s former wife, who has just discovered that his government has been overthrown, are beautifully realized.

Segal, the author of two other novels and several children’s books, is herself originally from Vienna. On one level, she has produced a sparkling narrative that moves rapidly from situation to situation, but, on a second level, she has presented her readers with a wry and accurate look at what it means to become an American.

Her First American

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

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...

(The entire section is 1934 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, April 1, 1985, p. 301.

Library Journal. CX, June 1, 1985, p. 146.

Los Angeles Times. June 13, 1985, V, p. 38.

The New Republic. CXCIII, August 5, 1985, p. 41.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, May 19, 1985, p. 7.

Newsweek. CVI, July 8, 1985, p. 67.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVII, March 29, 1985, p. 64.

Time. CXXV, July 1, 1985, p. 60.

Washington Post Book World. XV, July 7, 1985, p. 6.