Myron Farber of The New York Times was proceeding west along life's highway (he is 40) without fear, since he keeps his nose clean and works his tail off.

And then the world turned upside down. He found himself in jail, and at the center of a heated (not to say vituperative) argument whether he was evil, money-grabbing, etc. Or whether he is fighting to keep the press independent of government tampering.

Even among his own colleagues in the press, you could hear comments like this one, from a Washington news fellow:

"I'd like to have my dog sniff him. Dogs can tell."

"Well," said another news fellow, "what if your dog took one sniff and decided Farber was the greatest guy alive?"

"I'd give him the damn dog," said the first.

On the other hand, many people think Farber is bearing the weight of the U.S. Constitution on his shoulders and acquitting himself like a prince.

He refused to comply with a court order to turn over hundreds of pages (none of them specifically demanded, but everything he had on general principles) of his notes bearing on a murder trial which is now going on in New Jersey. This landed Farber in jail for 27 days.

Farber, in short, has found himself abruptly transformed from a hard-working reporter into a consitutional headache.

As he says, the commotion now around him is "a lot more important than I am," and one of the things that cheers him is 500 or so letters from people who believe as he does that his battle is the ordinary citizen's battle.

Briefly, this is how he got where he is now:

In 1966 there were several baffling deaths at a New Jersey hospital. There was an investigation, but nothing came of it. At that time Farber had no interest in the story and had nothing to do with reporting it.

In 1975 The Times got a tip that there was more to those 1966 deaths than met the eye, and Farber was assigned to check it out. He did this from August to December, 1975. He says he worked only as a reporter and had no contact with any publisher or film maker.

His stories in The Times in January, 1976, showed there might be grounds for reopening the whole case, and "the phone rang off the hook" with offers for a book about the cae.

That spring there was an offer from Warner Bros. for a possible movie, but Farber says he rejected it because he had no intention of turning over his confidential information to Warner Bros. as the contract would have required. Also, the contract depended on an indictment or a conviction of the doctor who is now on trial for murdering hospital patients. Farber was immaterial to him how the case turned out.

In July, 1976, he signed a book contract with Doubleday, which gave paperback rights to Warner Books, but there was no provision making the contract contingent on the indictment or conviction of anybody, Farber says.

He has received part of a $75,000 advance on the book and has no assurance anything more than that advance will ever come his way.

"Out of it comes the tax bite, and 10 percent for my agent and 10 percent for my lawyer - I don't have stocks and bonds and my arrangement with the lawyer was a percentage of what the book might earn," he said.

It has bothered Farber that he has sometimes been pictured as money-hungry.

"I'm a reporter, I need to live near The Times, and unfortunately it costs a lot of money. But my wife and I almost never go to the theater or to expensive restaurants. I'm a solitary sort of guy, and I work my tail off.

It's easy enough to believe it. When he walks or reaches for his pipe or a glass of beer or shaves, there is no waste movement.

He has longish hair and a beard, black with a lot of silver-gray. His eyes look straight at you and into you, trying to decide whether to trust you or not.

"I grew up in Baltimore, and I've been at The Times for 12 years. My background is middle-class Jewish. I grew up with Justice Brandeis and people like that as heroes. I thought, and think, The Times is the greatest paper in the world - its sense of responsibility, its allowing a reporter time to go that extra step, and maybe straight. And then space to report them.

"If any one thing is clear to me in all this, it's that I was right to trust The Times.

"I'm a solitary sort of guy," he said. "I don't even like to work with other reporters on a story, and I'm the last guy in the world to start collaborating with prosecutors.

"I'm a reporter, and it's a big thing in my life to work for The Times. We have two children, and my wife who is French, wants them to go to a French school. But the idea that I would try to make money by obstructing a fair trial is crazy."

"Without my wanting it, I am a figure in a freedom of the press case. It is much more important than I am, or even than The Times is. And corny as it may sound, I have that responsibility, not to buckle in at the first pressure against me - to make the press an arm or a servant of the government.

Farber came to town Tuesday night for a First Amendment rally where he was lavishly applauded.

At his hotel before the rally he took a shower, but suggested the talks continue. If you asked him a question he popped his head out at the shower end of the curtain and rat-tat-tat comes the answer.

A beer was sent up for him, the waiter arriving in the midst of intense conversation, and really there was no time to drink the beer, because he must get on to the Press Club. He settled for a good slurp.

"This is mad," he said. "You could do a funny piece, I guess, if you wanted to about me in the shower and cabs. I hope the seriousness of the constitutional question doesn't get lost. I am a lot more sober, a lot more dignified usually."

But if time is short, you do three things at once. One would marvel the razor never cut him as he shaved, and talked.

As it has turned out, Farber almost wishes he had not got into the book aspect.

"I hate to say that, because it seems to lend credence to some of the arguments against me. I have a perfect right to write a book, and a perfect right to get paid for my work. But I know this book has been used to throw up dust around the central issue - the right of the press to be independent. The First Amendment was never written to make things nice for the Hartford Courant or whatever papers were around in those days, but to make sure the press was fee to examine and keep an eye on the actions of government.

"You have to remember I was jailed without any hearing on my assertion of constitutional rights. Neither The Times nor I has ever said we had the right to keep an accused man from a fair trial.

"If they think I have some particular document that could establish the doctor's guilt or innocence, then let them subpoena it and let that be judged in the court. But nobody in the press can give in to a weeping demand for entire files without any show that there is anything in those files material to the trial.

"I never was an eyewitness to any of this - the deaths occurred years before I even got interested in them. The doctor and his lawyers are as free to interview dozens or hundreds of people as I was."

The case is complicated, but courts are supposed to be able to follow complexities; Farber doubts throwing a reporter in jail is one of them.

Jail, he said, was not all that bad, except he felt cut off from everything. Even in jail, he said with a touch of pride he could not keep out of his voice, it made a difference to be a reporter for The Times.

"My wife believes as strongly in the issue of press freedom as I do. And once a TV reporter had my 3-year-old daughter on camera and asked her how it felt for her daddy to go to jail, I couldn't stop the question. She looked right at the camera and said, 'You have to do what's right.'" (Farber laughed, with a hint of protective emotion).

If the book - the money interest of the rporter - has disturbed some people, still it is hardly relevant to the question of First Amendment rights, Farber believes, nor has he "waived" his right by letting his publisher see a draft of the book. His publisher has never seen anything. Farber insists, that would identify his confidential sources. Furthermore, no court has ever ruled that he has waived any rights.

One of the most amazing aspects of the case as far as Farber is concerned, is that it can proceed so far without a court ruling on his claims of constitutional rights.

Of course, as Abe Rosenthal, executive editor of The Times at the Press Club later:

"Myron, it better be a damn good book."