Archived Reading Room

Death call Everyman

When I registered as a sophomore at Western Carolina University (then, Western Carolina Teachers’ College) in 1954, I heard a number of my classmates talking about Dr. George Herring. “Get a class under him, Gary,” they said. “Hurry! His literature classes fill up first.” Eventually, I managed to get English Literature 201 — a class that prompted me to become an English major.

In a lackluster field of academics, Herring easily qualified as “colorful.” (That means “eccentric.”) Famous for his red- and-white-striped T-shirt (pocked with a dozen holes and crusted with stains of uncertain origin), George resisted “conventional academic attire.” Add a pair of disreputable tennis shoes, a shaggy head and unshaven jowls, and George seemed to be an original. Of course, his “I–don’t-give-a-damn” attitude made him popular with students, but he was also an unforgettable teacher.

In a typical “Herring class,” George paced erratically about the room, spittle flying, as he built himself into a kind of ecstasy/rant. Since he loved to discuss anything that he had been researching, there were plenty of digressions. A lecture on Thomas More might morph into an evaluation of Japanese calligraphy, and a tale in Chaucer might stray into Druids and human sacrifice. He had bad days, too — days when he stared at us as though we were demons sent to plague him, demons from the paintings of his favorite artist, Hieronymus Bosch. However, as the years passed, he acquired a slate of memorable lectures — wild, poetic flights on his favorite topics: William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot and D. H. Lawrence.

One such lecture was on the 15th century medieval drama, “Everyman.” It was a performance that brought repeat visitors (ministers, fellow teachers, former students, etc.) to Herring’s class, people who had heard about George’s ruminations on death. In our Norton anthology, the ancient drama opens with the protagonist, Everyman, carousing at the local tavern with his companions. His buddies have names like Wealth, Good Humor and Companionship. Then, a stranger in a great, black cloak enters the tavern and calls “Everyman!” Everyman says, “Who calls?” and the visitor replies, “Death calls, Everyman.”

Everyman begs, but to no avail. Death gives him a few hours to prepare for his final journey. Everyman wants to know if he can take a companion since he is frightened. Death replies that if he can find anyone willing to go with him, then he, his guide, will not object. The remainder of the play is predictable. Everyone abandons poor Everyman. Wealth, Beauty and even his Five Senses refuse the dark journey. Only Good Deeds agrees to accompany him, but he turns out to be so weak (due to Everyman’s neglect), he cannot walk. In the final scene, Everyman descends into his grave alone, a contrite but hopeful sinner.

Herring’s lecture recalled a production of “Everyman” at Northwestern University when he was a student. It was an outdoor presentation with a stage built at the conjunction of two rivers. The play opens at sunset with the last rays of fading light illuminating Everyman and his carousing friends. According to George, when Death called, the sound was daunting. Loudspeakers have been hung from trees along the river, and the summons “EVERYMAN!” rolled down the four branches of the rivers, echoing, echoing. As the darkness grows, the characters have to carry lanterns and torches. When Everyman makes his final descent, George Herring whispers his last speech to a rapt audience. Then, as George picks up his battered briefcase and reaches for the door, the bell rings – the bell announces the end of the class. George had great timing! However, as I remember it, nobody moved for a long time after Herring’s exit.

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Well, all of this brings me to Philip Roth, America’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, who has just written a modern treatment of “Everyman.” Like his predecessor, Roth’s doomed character has spent much of his life reveling in “the good life.”

Now, poised on the brink of oblivion (repeated heart surgery and failing health), this retired Jewish advertising executive finds that he has been abandoned. Alienated from his former wives (three of them) and his sons, he gradually comes to realize that he has effectively orchestrated his own tragic loneliness.

Throughout this novel, Roth’s Everyman moves toward death with a kind of inexorable tread. In fact, the novel opens at his funeral in an abandoned Jewish cemetery on the Jersey coast.

With the exception of the grieving daughter, Nancy, the mourners are respectful and indifferent. At this point, Roth allows the deceased to recount his life, from his childhood to his successful stint as a powerful advertising executive. It is a life fraught with mistakes. Roth’s Everyman has lied to his friends, betrayed his wife and neglected his children.

In spite of his flaws, there is nobility to his final days. He ponders the significance of orthodox Jewish burials in which the mourners (not the gravediggers) bury the deceased. He watches his friends, cut down by mental illness and painful, wasting diseases, and he ponders the miraculous vitality of his own youth. As he undergoes a series of heart surgeries, he dreams of his foolhardy swimming feats, riding the waves as they crashed on the Jersey beach — waves that left him breathless and stunned on the sand. Roth’s Everyman dies during his final operation, dreaming of waves, sand and sunlight.

Roth’s Everyman, like his 15th century predecessor, accepts Death’s call with stoic fortitude. Although Philip Roth, a major American novelist, chronicles his departure, I feel prompted to make one final observation. I prefer George Herring’s version.

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