Philip Milton Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1933, the second son of Bess (née Finkel) and Herman Roth. His parents, first generation Jewish immigrants, both had roots in the central European region of Galicia. Roth’s first book, Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories, written in his early twenties, was published in 1959 and awarded the National Book Award in 1960. This early recognition was followed by a lifetime of highly-praised works. Roth has won, among other accolades, the Pulitzer, the National Book Critics Circle award, the National Book Award twice, and the PEN/Faulkner Award three times, winning the PEN/Faulkner Award for Everyman in 2007. Despite the many awards Roth’s novels have received, the author is a divisive figure, with criticism aimed at his depictions of male sexuality, women, and Jewish culture. The author of thirty-one books, from novellas and short stories to full-length fiction and memoir, Roth retired from his over five-decade-long writing career in 2010. His final novel, Nemesis, was published in that year. Roth has expressed pessimism over the future of novel-reading as a popular activity, saying that he believes that in the near future reading will become cult-like behavior.
Everyman, published in 2006, is the first in a series of four short novels that Roth has grouped together, from Indignation (2008), The Humbling (2009) to Nemesis (2010), which share a broad thematic concern with illness and mortality in an East Coast American setting. Some common elements running through much of Roth’s body of work include a blurring of distinctions between autobiography and fiction, and explorations of American, and particularly Jewish-American, cultural experiences. Everyman features elements that mimic Roth’s biography, starting with its secular Jewish-American protagonist who grows up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, just six miles away from Roth’s hometown, Newark. Like Roth, the protagonist (unnamed in Everyman and known as the everyman in this guide) was born in 1933, has a complicated medical history and a profound distain of organized religion. However, Roth has stated in interviews that he is not interested in drawing a distinct line between fiction and autobiography, finding the line to be unimportant. Roth positions the everyman, whether based on himself and his life experiences or not, as a kind of no one and everyone at the same time.
A fifteenth century Catholic morality play, also known as Everyman, is a key influence in Roth’s Everyman according to Roth himself. Roth explains that the play Everyman is about salvation through hard work and piety. In the play, the protagonist represents all of mankind. He is seeking salvation after a life full of sin. Roth states that the first great line of English drama is contained in this play, at the moment when Death reveals himself to the protagonist, who, dismayed, announces “Oh, Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind.” The protagonist is allowed to seek travelling companions on his journey to his death, from Kindred and Fellowship and Goods (allegorical representatives of worldly concerns) to the pious Good Deeds. In the end, the protagonist atones for his sins and ultimately goes to heaven. Philip Roth’s Everyman subtly parallels aspects of the play. Like the protagonist of the play, the everyman goes on a kind of journey with various companions unable to follow him all the way to the grave, leaving him alone in the end.
The American cultural understanding of illness and death, as well as Roth’s own personal views of mortality, color the ways in which the journey towards Death is approached in the novel. Roth’s everyman is born into a culturally Jewish household rather than a Christian one and lives through twentieth century America rather than fifteenth century Europe. His world lacks, and indeed directly rejects, the idea of salvation via traditional Christian religious means like confession, purifying suffering, and God’s grace. Mortality in Roth’s novel has no potential for comfort but is a bleak severing from worldly joys. The everyman lives and works in a post-war booming America as an advertising director, and expects to live free of any of the sudden sweeps of premature death that could be found in fifteenth century European experience, such as death by famine or plague. There is no kindly Death granting him the chance of company for his journey of self-reflection. Death, instead, is preceded by medicalized illness, that is, by human attempts to avoid death and prolong life. The novel therefore explores the same frightening aspects of death – its suddenness and the fact it must be faced alone – from a modern and secular perspective.