‘It has never been my desire to diminish by so much as a crumb of information the charming wonderment of a lady.’
[E. B. White; from a sketch published in The New Yorker]
(Thank you, E.B. White; that’s a relief. And thanks for calling my wonderment ‘charming’. Not that I am the lady who wrote in with a query about pigeons; nor am I even of your generation. Yet I have wondered for years about Bruce Buttfield and the pouf.)
Perhaps, if you have enjoyed White’s little masterpiece of writing Dusk In Fierce Pajamas, you’ve wondered about Bruce Buttfield and the pouf, as well.
White wrote the short sketch from his bed of illness, from his fierce pajamas, and straight away from his contemplation of the four perfect evenings of Mrs. Allen Ryan, Jr., busy socialite.
[‘They are perfect little crystals of being–static, precious.’]
Thanks to the perceptive irony of E.B. White, Mrs. Allen Ryan, Jr. and her preoccupations live on for us. As do Rose Hobart, the Harold Talbots, Monsieur Charles de Beistegui, and the knowledge that Mrs. Chester Burden uses only white in her table settings.
Dusk In Fierce Pajamas [published in the New Yorker, 1934] is a perfect gem in miniature. It is not just the humor of a bored convalescent, idly flipping through fashion magazines. It is irony, pathos, insight and satire of the best kind. It well illustrates how humor is a type of genius that not only Knows, but more importantly, Understands. It chronicles, even through the self-deprecating moments, the fierce desire to keep one’s mind alive and active through illness and isolation. A log is not a raft, a raft is not a boat, a boat is not a cruise liner, but they all float. They are all life preservers. The adornment of Rose Hobart while dining at the Waldorf might not have been the normal stuff of E.B. White’s cerebral preoccupations in his job as contributor at The New Yorker, but ‘the haunting dusk is shattered by the clean glint of jewels by Cartier’.
Even the attempt to describe what it is about a piece like Dusk In Fierce Pajamas that is affecting, feels as though I were serving it up as Mrs. Cecil Baker did her perfectly overwrought hard-boiled eggs, olives, celery and radishes all preciously compartmentalized on blue and white Spode china.
(‘No, that’s wrong. I am in chiffon, for it is the magic hour after bridge.’)
What White himself said about “durable humor”, though, is revealing:
“I find difficulty with the word “humor” and with the word “humorist” to peg a writer…. the durable humor in literature, I suspect, is not the contrived humor of a funnyman commenting on the news but the sly and almost imperceptible ingredient that sometimes gets into writing. I think of Jane Austen, a deeply humorous woman. I think of Thoreau, a man of some humor along with his bile.” [E.B. White, interviewed in 1969, printed in ‘The Paris Review’]
That ‘sly and almost imperceptible ingredient’ —Humor— will never be completely understood. It has been described as one of the muses, a spark of genius, an art— and as such remains elusive. As Clifton Fadiman expressed it, humor “[makes] quietly despairing men suddenly catch a vision of the surprisingness of life, the breakability of rules, the spirit-cleansing power of the irrelevant.”
It is significant that White gives Jane Austen the honor of a mention in his definition of humor. Jane Austen wrote one of her comic masterpieces, Sanditon, when she was at her most ill. She died before she could finish it. In creating her characters, and the hilarity of their various occupations, did she feel, as E.B. White expressed, ‘in them I found surcease from the world’s ugliness, from disarray, from all unattractive things.’?
Given E.B. White’s statement I included at the beginning of this post, he might forgive me for having put aside the enriching read of his Poems and Sketches and wasting an hour or so on the internet while I indulged in what he called a ‘charming wonderment’. The exact look of the ‘pouf’, by the way, is still in question. As to Bruce Buttfield’s existence, my curiosity was readily satisfied. He was an interior designer to the rich and famous, and became rich and famous for his interiors.
What I really wanted was a picture of the Bruce Buttfield pouf, but it was not to be had. I suspect the use of pouf was a deliberate choice by White–a term richly suggestive of lack of substance rather than an actual description of a firm, upholstered stool for seating.
Another curiosity, and one that kept me from getting back to ‘Owen Johnson over his chafing dish’, is that Wikipedia has a separate heading and comprehensive definition for both pouf and tuffet, with side trips over to ‘ottoman’ and ‘hassock’. There is also a helpful redirect in case you accidentally type in pouffe; this being a more accurate term to describe what Bruce Buttfield might have devised. But pouf is where E.B. White immortalized himself, and there we shall leave him. Sitting at dusk.
[‘For it is dusk.’}
- E.B. White on Writing (maxweylandt.wordpress.com)