Sunday, June 28, 2015

`To Compare Experience with Expectation'

Boswell tells us that Bennet Langton, a devoted reader of The Rambler (1750-52), journeyed from Lincolnshire to London “chiefly with the view of endeavouring to be introduced to its authour.” Born in 1736, Langton was still a teenager when we went to meet his hero, who at once took a liking to him. In 1757, Langton matriculated from Trinity College, Oxford, where he befriended Topham Beauclerk. Together, early in their acquaintance, they took Johnson for his famous “frisk” to Billingsgate. That Johnson maintained friendships with his juniors speaks well of his avidity and love of life. Johnson was forty-eight and the author of his Dictionary and “The Vanity of Human Wishes” when he wrote to Langton (whom he called “Lanky,” as he called Beauclerk “Beau”) on this date, June 28, in 1758: 

“I know not any thing more pleasant, or more instructive, than to compare experience with expectation, or to register from time to time the difference between idea and reality. It is by this kind of observation that we grow daily less liable to be disappointed.” 

Already middle-aged and accomplished, Johnson had a right to coast complacently on his reputation, but was too restless, self-doubting, ambitious and penurious to do so. What he suggests to Langton was his customary practice – life lived attentively and conducted as a sort of experiment in which the outcome in advance is unknown. Johnson resumes his letter: 

“You, who are very capable of anticipating futurity, and raising phantoms before your own eyes, must often have imagined to yourself an academical life, and have conceived what would be the manners, the views, and the conversation, of men devoted to letters; how they would choose their companions, how they would direct their studies, and how they would regulate their lives. Let me know what you expected, and what you have found.” 

What interests Johnson, beyond his solicitousness for his young friend, is the process of living and maturing. What do we expect, what actually happens, and what do we make of the differences? Those who live with an indelibly fixed image of their future risk disappointment and despair. How well Bennet heeded his friend’s example is not known. He published little. In his will, Johnson left him a book and £750, out of which he was to pay an annuity to Francis Barber, Johnson’s servant. The first identification of Langton in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is not as writer or captain in the militia but “friend of Samuel Johnson.”

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