He Changed the Game and Dared to Know

Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh
James Boswell, 1765; portrait by George Willison

The Boswell family tomb lies beneath an old building in the Scottish town of Auchinleck. When you go down the steps into the black vault, you are immediately enclosed in a coldness that troubles your own bones. The air is damp—a struck match goes out, then a second—and the experience is less of visiting a grave than occupying one.

The other day, I blindly felt the walls and touched a metal plaque before remembering my phone has a flashlight. “Sir Alexander Boswell, Bart,” it says on the plaque, giving the date of his death. This man, I knew, was the eldest son of the famous biographer. He died in a duel in 1822, at Auchtertool in Fife, after insulting a certain nobleman in the pages of a short-lived journal, the Glasgow Sentinel. Alexander was a member of Parliament and a baronet, which explains the relatively posh memorial. His father, the genius of the place, is buried in the adjacent wall and his crypt is marked with chalk: “JB.”

The biographer’s grandfather, another James Boswell, who died in 1749—once a “big, strong, Gothic-looking man,” an advocate who “never understood a cause till he had lost it three times,” according to Frederick Pottle1—has a large crack in his crypt through which I could see, resting on dust, his Yorick-like skull. Above him is the grave of Boswell’s daughter Veronica. In a letter to his friend William Temple, the biographer once described how he held Veronica in his arms one morning and told her she would one day be taken from her grave into the fine things of heaven. He frightened her but he couldn’t help it. “I saw death,” he wrote, “waiting for all the human race, and had such a cloudy and dark prospect beyond it, that I was miserable as far as I had animation.”

Boswell was subject to the “black foe,” a fear of death that somehow acted as a guiding light to his philosophy.2 In an odd way, being in his tomb was like being in his mind, for there never was such a lively fellow who dwelled more on death. As a young man in Holland, he could wake up shocked from a dream in which he was condemned to be hanged. He was changeful, but his mind was a constant chamber of ghosts and religious horrors. “I awake at night dreading annihilation,” he wrote, “or being thrown into some horrible state of being.”

That dread state of being invigorates the drama of self for Boswell, giving him both reason and impetus, and he shared with Samuel Johnson a deep sense of worry about his end. We think of the two of them on the London highway, making for drinks at the Mitre, at the apogee of their lives (if not yet of…

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