IN AN AGE of 15-minute celebrities, instant coffee (or tea) and minute rice, it does not take long for folklore to become fixed in the national consciousness. The story of Bess Truman burning the former president's letters is almost as familiar as the story of George Washington and the cherry tree or Abraham Lincoln learning his letters by the light from the log cabin fireplace.

"Think of history," Harry Truman is supposed to have protested.

"I have," she answered.

The appearance of this fat volume of his letters, then--over 500 pages of them covering a period of 50 years and more--is something of a surprise. And these letters are, the editor tells us, only half of the number extant--there are more than 1,200 in all. (Since Margaret Truman is the source of the story of the burning it cannot be doubted, but the letters burned must have been few indeed.)

Harry S Truman, as Ferrell says in his epilogue, was a 19th- century man. In no aspect of his life was this more apparent than in his long and contented marriage to Bess Wallace, the girl of his dreams from the time he met her in Sunday school when he was six years old. It was a marriage delayed by a long courtship necessary because the young and struggling Truman could not add the support of a wife to his family obligations. It was a marriage in which husband, as well as wife, was absorbed with the minutiae of family life--rents and room sizes, bills, the well-being of relatives and friends, their daughter's schools and enthusiasms. It was a marriage of homely loving familiarity in which the husband could insist that he had married "the prettiest girl in the world" at the same time that he worried about her new teeth.

The letters in themselves are not much more than the cataloguing of the doings of day after day. Harry Truman wrote at least once, sometimes twice, each day when he and Bess were separated. And they were separated often because she had the care of her mother and because Bess disliked Washington and seemed to welcome excuses to stay away from it even during Truman's years in the presidency. What makes the letters absorbing is the way in which, in their consummate ordinariness and matter-of-factness, they give us a detailed and vivid picture of the world in which Harry Truman lived, the world and time which molded him and most Americans in the era just before our own. It is a world of small farmers and merchants, of days of hard work interspersed with basket socials and picnics, of travel by buggy or streetcar, and fast, comfortable railroads, a time when a man possessed of small capital could dream of making his fortune in mining or oil--a time when all things seemed possible.

Americans of that world, like Harry Truman, were shaped for life by the mores and their places in the strata of small and self-contained communities. Psychologically, at least, Harry and Bess Truman never left Independence. He was to marvel all his life at winning her and, thus, bridging the gap between his own simple farm heritage and hers higher "up the social ladder" as granddaughter of the owner of the town's largest mill. The confidence which winning her instilled in him and the confidence he gained as an officer in World War I enabled him to face what would seem to us far wider gaps and greater challenges with equanimity. Each year on their anniversary he summed up their lives together:

"Twenty-three years have been extremely short and for me extremely happy ones. Thanks to the right kind of life pardner for me we've come out reasonably well. A failure as a farmer, a miner, an oil promoter, and a merchant but finally hit the groove as a public servant--and that due mostly to you and lady luck. . . . We have the prettiest and sweetest daughter in the world, a reasonably comfortable living, and the satisfaction of having helped everybody we possibly could . . ."

Although Truman recounted his failures, he seems untroubled by them, so secure was he in the identity he forged in Independence. His editor notes that he "was never daunted by what he could not control," and it might be added that he was clear about what he could control. Once he was in the White House he could write that after he got things organized "there'll be no more to this job than there was to running Jackson County and not any more worry."

There is something sobering and salutary about the quintessential Americanness of the man revealed in these letters--the man who, by chance was to lead us when the country was at the pinnacle of international influence. Here is the authentic WASP, the mid-continent Anglo- Saxon, "the good stock" (Truman's words) which moved westward from the eastern seaboard, generation by generation, to become the dominant group in middle America. (Aboard the U.S.S. Augusta Truman encountered a seaman from Kentucky . . . "the great-grandson of my grandmother's brother . . . eyes just like Margaret's").

He clung to the values and prejudices of his background. The Grand Mastership of the Masonic Lodge seemed to mean as much to him as the impressive national reputation he was to gain as chairman of the famed Truman Committee. He is gratified but unimpressed when as senator, vice-president, and president he is sought out by the great of the world. The Queen of Holland is "a nice old lady" who "spoke rather brokenly." Bernard Baruch is "a stuffed shirt" with an ego second only to FDR's, Anna Roosevelt Boettiger is charming "and certainly has brains." The minister of Saudi Arabia is "a real old Biblical Arab with chin whiskers." George VI is "The Limey King." This, however, is the private Truman. There are glimpses of the public Truman, too-- conscious of history. The decision for the free interchange of scientific knowledge in connection with the atomic bomb is "probably the most momentous one I'll ever make."

Two things make the book less interesting for the casual reader. One is that the other side of the dialogue is missing and can only be surmised. What were the words of encouragement and advice from Bess? How great was her participation in his political life? "Don't let any of our job holders work you into a political hole," he writes, and, "Your White House press interview showed you're a genius." In an absence from Washington he thanks her for going to the office and keeping the staff on their toes. But these isolated instances lack context, as do the references in the letters to Truman's Senate colleagues and the Senate struggles which meant so much to him. Ferrell gives us only lists of former Senate giants, now half-forgotten by all but historians. Glass, LaFollette, Byrd, Anderson, Clark, Chavez, McKellar, McCarran, Vandenberg, Mead, Barkley, George--only those of us who remember will understand the references to them.

The history of those who have occupied the White House, a small and select company, after all, is also a history of American marriages in their variety. As a steady serene relationship, the Truman's marriage stands in contrast to that of the gifted and turbulent Roosevelts who preceded them, and whose marriage, as we know now, was at times as troubled as it was rich in successes and shared experience. But when these letters were written Truman must have been aware only of the public contrast. Would he have wanted Bess to be a different first lady? Probably not. After he was chosen as vice-presidential candidate in 1944, he wrote-- and there is a hint of a satisfied chuckle in the words--"The President told me that Mrs. R. was a very timid woman and wouldn't go to political meetings or make any speeches when he first ran for governor of N.Y. Then he said, 'Now she talks all the time.' What am I to think?"