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  • James Boswell's Revisions of Death as "The Hypochondriack" and in His London Journals
  • Katherine Ellison

James Boswell learns of the deaths of his son, his mother, and his mentor Samuel Johnson by post. Perhaps it is fitting that a writer who so painstakingly records the significant moments of his life in writing reads about, rather than witnesses, the deaths of those closest to him. Boswell records in detail in his journals his experiences with the passing of his dearest family and friends, as well as with the executions of Paul Lewis, Mr Gibson, and John Reid. Boswell uses the revision process, as demonstrated most clearly in his rewritings of execution scenes, as a means of coping with death and of countering his admitted religious inconstancy. Always conscious of his inability to behave or think consistently, Boswell notes on 25 February 1763 that "I should deservedly be considered as a man of no stability but inconstant and wavering with every breath."1 Through revision, he strengthens his wavering belief that the transition from life to death is a change of state from the solid to the miasmic, that the mind is preserved in death through a transformation into a spatially independent existence. Through reading and writing about death, Boswell challenges his own religious instability, revising to convince himself that there is an afterlife and that [End Page 37] memory survives in as dynamic a state as it was during life. Writing, as a mode of "Memoria technica," or "artificial Memory," serves as his model for the spiritual change of death and allows him to believe that memories are spatially and semantically transformed rather than merely stored or erased, a subtle distinction that he feels captures writing's imaginative qualities and provides evidence for the eternal existence of the human soul after death.2 In this way, Boswell presents challenges to later assumptions made by theorists such as Walter Ong, who claims that "print encouraged human beings to think of their own interior conscious and unconscious resources as more and more thing-like, impersonal and religiously neutral."3 Boswell, for whom writing is spiritually enlightening, consciously negotiates between the idea of writing and print as memorized things and as processes of change. When David Hume claims that, logically, immortality is impossible because the universe is not large enough to house every individual for eternity, Boswell quickly replies: "Mr. Hume, you know spirit does not take up space."4 In Boswell's view, the afterlife is not a physical, unchanging place where souls are eternally stored, crammed together like old books on a shelf.

William Matthews and Ralph W. Rader find that early autobiographies of the seventeenth century are exercises in religious faith and personal reflection, central characteristics in Boswell's autobiographical writings a century later.5 Particularly in his journals and the essays that appear in the London Magazine between 1777 and 1783, published under the pseudonym "The Hypochondriack," readers see Boswell struggling to reconcile [End Page 38] his belief that the dead remember and forget like the living with what he describes, in his reminiscences of his boyhood, as the dependence of religious teachings upon memorization and routine, a system that he believes conflicts with true faith. In his youth, before he is genuinely interested in practicing law, Boswell critiques the legal system on the same grounds that it requires memorization but cannot allow for the complexities of memory. In his depictions of both writing and death as transformative processes and not instruments of annihilation, he argues against contemporary tendencies, which he sees exemplified in John Locke's and Hume's philosophies, that materialize memory and overlook the religious implications of imagining the mind as a storage facility.6 Unhappy with the pedagogies of death and memory he sees in religion, law, and philosophy, Boswell turns to his writings to counter his often despairing theological uncertainties. By comparing different versions of the same execution scenes, which he records throughout his years as advocate, readers see that for Boswell preserving memory does not mean copying reality identically with each new draft; rather, remembering is re-visioning, the addition and subtraction of details to make a scene more memorable. One question often...


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