A DIARY OF THE CENTURY

Tales from America's

Greatest Diarist

By Edward Robb Ellis

Kodansha. 579 pp. $25

EDWARD ROBB ELLIS started keeping a diary on Dec. 27, 1927, when he was 16 years old. He vowed to be honest with himself, and so he was. Only 29 days into it he is recounting what should have been a poignant scene of sexual awakening, but instead turns fiasco when at the most inopportune moment imaginable he develops a nosebleed.

Eddie Ellis survived this indignity, as he would so many others, and remained faithful to his diary for more than 67 years. At 20 million words -- nearly half the size of the Encyclopedia Britannica and still growing, we are told -- Ellis's diary is considered the largest in the world. Prodigious as this accomplishment is, it is Ellis's unfailing humanity and honesty that make A Diary of the Century an important and irresistible document.

Ellis was born in 1911 to a loving mother and wastrel father, in a Midwestern town that he always planned to escape (his first entry begins, "Kewanee, Illinois, Hog Capital of the World"). Bright but an indifferent student, Ellis slogged through a series of academic, romantic and professional setbacks (for a while he peddled soap door-to-door) before realizing his dream of becoming a newspaperman.

Because of Ellis's career, first as a reporter in New Orleans, Chicago and New York and then as an author of narrative histories (including The Epic of New York City), his life has intersected, at scattershot and sometimes hilarious points, with dozens of the century's familiar figures: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Sinclair Lewis, Herbert Hoover, Louis Armstrong, Henry Ford ("he has bad breath and blue hair"), Thomas Mann, Bob Hope, Romare Bearden, e. e. cummings, Harry Truman, Willie Sutton, Douglas MacArthur, Barbra Streisand, Alger Hiss. We eavesdrop on him interviewing Huey Long in a men's room, shadowing Garbo on Park Avenue, and summoning the courage to tell Robert Moses that the master builder is a lousy writer.

These encounters spice the diary, of course, but it is the diarist who holds our attention. Edward Ellis was, and is, a remarkably decent person, a working stiff who nonetheless metamorphoses into something like a philosopher. He combines a talent for writing and observation with an understanding that a diary is history in present-tense, human terms. So rather than hearing about "the Dust Bowl," we learn what it's like to walk around all day with grit in your mouth; rather than getting world War II in grand design, we see a scared young man pressed into service, only to come home to a wife who wants a divorce.

And throughout we are moved by Ellis's bottomless compassion. Here is how he recorded a Depression-era encounter: "The other night in the French Quarter a ragged man approached me and mumbled. Mister, I don't want any money but -- please! Won't you buy me a cup of coffee?' I paused for a second and then said, Sure! Where?' He led me to a lunch counter and sat down on a stool. I put a dime on the counter and suggested he get a doughnut, too. His dirty hand over the coin, he looked at me with pleading eyes and begged: Do you . . . ugh, do you mind if I get some stew instead?' I shuddered."

Diary also relates a great love story. In 1955, Ellis wed Ruth Kraus, and the two were blissfully devoted to one another. When Ellis quit his job to write the history of New York, his beloved adopted home, Ruth quit hers to help him. One of the diary's most vivid scenes occurs when they find themselves alone in the cavernous processing hall at Ellis Island (before its refurbishing). They shout out the names of their forebears who had passed through the same space so many years before, and the words redound like aural memories.

Then, once again, real life crashes down. Just as they finish the New York manuscript, on the verge of seeing it published, Ruth dies of a heart attack. Ellis, devastated, works through his grief the only way he can -- through his diary. His account of Ruth's death, rendered in his always clean prose, is harrowing.

Despite Ellis's pain -- or perhaps because of it -- the reader is apt to crave more of him, not less, and unfortunately whole tantalizing sections seem unrepresented here. Ellis's daughter is not quite 3 when he is divorced from his first wife, but we don't meet her again until she's grown. He spends years in analysis, but we hear little about it. He admits to having had a serious drinking problem, but we see no evidence of it. It must have been a hopeless task to edit the diary down to this volume, maybe 1 percent of Ellis's total output, but having come to know our protagonist so well we want no secrets.

In 1963 Ellis takes note of the publication of another volume of the monumental journal of James Boswell. Wistful, and maybe a little jealous, Ellis writes, "I wonder whether any parts of my Journal ever will be published?" Then he puts away the grandiose notion as quickly as he raises it, to keep dutifully at his diary for another three decades, and in so doing producing something akin to Copland's glorious "Fanfare for the Common Man." Thomas Kunkel, the author of "Genius in Disguise," a biography of New Yorker founding editor Harold Ross, is working on a book about Catholic priests. CAPTION: Edward Robb Ellis in 1957, with volumes of his diary.