THE DOUGLAS LETTERS Selections From the Private Papers of Justice William O. Douglas Edited by Melvin I. Urofsky With the Assistance of Philip E. Urofsky Adler & Adler. 448 pp. $24.95

FOR 36 YEARS, the time that has elapsed since my only encounter with him, I have wondered what manner of man William O. Douglas was. That solitary meeting came about when Justice Felix Frankfurter, who had, to my utter astonishment, taken me under one of his capacious wings, arranged for me to have a brief audience with his fellow justice. Afterwards FF asked me how it had gone. I, a college student, did not think it my place to characterize one Supreme Court justice to another and I managed a vague response. Now that both men have passed from the scene, I suppose it is permissible for me to say that Douglas had compressed into 20 minutes more cold-eyed rudeness than I have ever since confronted in a long and varied life.

Douglas's waspishness unnerved me and I was not much relieved by those who later suggested that it had probably been directed less at me than at the man who sent me.

The episode explains my interest, a few years ago, in James Simon's discerning biography, Independent Journey, and, now, in Professor Urofsky's selection of Douglas' papers, extracted from the Library of Congress' huge collection. Simon's book suggested that I had fared no worse than others, including some of those closest to the justice: colleagues, family members, law clerks. William O. Douglas, a man who from a distance had been truly loved, seems to have had a terrible time with personal relationships.

Disappointingly, this offering of Douglas' private papers -- mostly correspondence -- brings one no closer to the enigma's resolution. In the first place, we have in this volume the barest sampling of the hundreds of thousands of documents Douglas left behind, and even that mountain of paper may have been judiciously culled by its creator. Furthermore, Urofsky's selection process can only be described as random, not to say idiosyncratic, owing perhaps to the circumstance that the library's collection has not yet been fully catalogued. Those who have admired Urofsky's meticulous collection of Justice Louis Brandeis' letters, not to mention his biography of Douglas' distinguished predecessor on the Court, may feel let down.

Urofsky's book is arranged in five promising parts. Douglas' years at Yale Law School and as chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission are grouped together. The 24 letters from his days as a young law professor reveal Douglas as a manipulative sycophant -- a typical candidate for academic tenure, in other words. Thirteen letters from the SEC period are largely uninformative. The sycophancy continues, with more elevated targets: FDR, Justice Brandeis, former SEC Chairman James Landis, Adolph Berle (whom Douglas had earlier referred to as "this boy" whose writings in the corporate field were "bum law . . . {and} very poor theory").

The section on "Mr. Justice Douglas" is understandably the lengthiest; after all, Douglas, the youngest man ever named to the Court, would establish a record for longevity of service. This segment of Urofsky's work has both value and interest.

Douglas' memos show that he thought Supreme Court justices were underworked. He apparently devoted only three or four days to Court work. His opinion-writing was rapid and occasionally downright haphazard; the issue would be isolated and a result reached but Douglas did not agonize over clarity nor pause to compose the memorable sentence. (This left him time to travel extensively, becoming an overnight expert on areas, such as the Middle East, that continue to baffle others, and to conduct an unending battle to preserve the environment -- or at least those parts of it that Douglas, an ardent outdoorsman, enjoyed.)

Urofsky has singled out letters and memoranda that attest to Douglas's well-known aversion to Frankfurter, whom he praised fulsomely to his face but branded "stuffy" and a conniver behind his back. More surprising is the revelation of Douglas' early contempt for Chief Justice Earl Warren, whom he described as "a cheap politico with a Christer complex" who "degraded the Court" and might be "off his rocker." Not surprising at all are the numerous evidences of Douglas's almost boyish reverence for Hugo Black.

SOME OF the material from the Court years is trivial. Mixed in with proselytizing memos calculated to "get a Court" on large constitutional issues are letters to Douglas' landlord complaining about his parking garage and testy responses to cranks. But not everything in the Court section is trifling or acerbic. Some of Douglas' directives to his law clerks, setting such gargantuan tasks as an analysis of "the sociological, penological, psychiatric and legislative aspects" of the death penalty, suggest the most compelling practical argument for judicial restraint: a solitary judge, assisted only by a few law clerks fresh from school, has the capacity to interpret and apply law as it is given by legislatures but is ill-equipped to generate the mass of data essential to the development of broad social policies.

Later sections of the Urofsky collection show us Douglas as potential politician (he seems to have had no political aspirations that were strong enough to induce him to take any risks), husband and father, possible impeachment defendant and, finally, desperately sick man. He seems to have been more concerned by the impeachment effort, bizarre though it was, than might have been supposed. He would probably have defended Urofsky's right to publish intimate letters involving his failed marriages and financial woes while taking a jaundiced view of his editorial taste. The letters from Douglas' last and lingering illness are very sad.

And so this collection is at once flawed and useful, more than a mere memento. Wiliam O. Douglas was probably neither a great nor even an especially influential jurist. But Urofsky's presentation, however many its gaps, amply demonstrates that Douglas, for all his irascibility and despite the distractions that so frustrated him, lived life to the fullest, fought most of the fights that he thought were good ones, and was in almost every respect that rare phenomenon, a brave man.

Jon R. Waltz is Williams Professor of Law at Northwestern University School of Law.