The longest diary: ephemera of the highest order

September 03, 1995|By Ray Jenkins | Ray Jenkins,Special to The Sun

"A Diary of The Century: Tales from America's Greatest

Diarist," by Edward Robb Ellis.

Illustrated. New York: Kodansha America. 578 pages. $25 When Eddie Ellis was a lad of 16 in Kewanee, Ill. - the self-proclaimed "hog capital of the world" - he proposed to his school chums a remedy for the tedium of life in a small Midwestern town in 1927: Let's have a contest, Eddie said, to see who could keep a diary for the longest time.

If any took up the challenge, they quickly abandoned it in favor of more rewarding youthful merriment, but from the day Eddie made his first entry - Dec. 27, 1927 - he was an addicted diarist. Soon friends and relatives began to whisper anxiously to Eddie about his fervent labor, using unflattering terms like "egotism," "narcissism," even "obsession." But Eddie persevered; each night he dutifully recorded the events of his day until the chronicle now surpasses 20 million words. This book represents a distillation of perhaps 10 percent of that Sisyphean toil.

At least since a bored bureaucrat named Samuel Pepys recorded his observations of life in England in the 1660s, the personal diary has occupied a small but significant niche in literature and history. Some of these tomes have become classics - still read for their literary artistry, their historical illumination, their philosophical insights. The world would be poorer indeed without James Boswell's daily observations on his friend Samuel Johnson, without Mary Chesnut's epic account of life during the Civil War, without Anne Frank's soul-stirring chronicle of her family's hiding from the Nazis.

Alas, Eddie Ellis' diary does reach such lofty heights. But that said, this charming book is a mesmerizingly entertaining and eclectic scrapbook indeed - fleeting impressions of celebrities Eddie interviewed over the years, little observations that didn't quite fit into a news story, crackerbarrel aphorisms inspired by events of the day, occasionally the full text of a feature story he wrote for the old New York World-Telegram.

But mostly the book consists of a plethora of personal anecdotes - waggish tales of his sexual athletics, poignant outcries over a first wife who left him and a beloved second wife who died at an early age, touching accounts of his struggles with the common addictions of his time and calling, booze and cigarettes. Eddie Ellis is a man of the snap-brim-hat, front-page-scoop, stop-the-presses school of journalism.

By the time he reaches his middle years, though, a certain dark temper has settled permanently around Eddie. "I can find no meaning to life," he writes in the entry on his 50th birthday in 1961. The last entry recorded in this book is dated Jan. 1, 1995, although no doubt Eddie will carry on as long as his advancing age and emphysema will permit him to strike a key.

Perhaps unintentionally, this book's chief value lies in the light it sheds on a bygone era in American journalism. The Greek word for newspapers is "ephemerida," which means "of passing interest." And nothing so dramatizes that intrinsically ephemeral nature of journalism than Ellis' diary. In the end the reader gets a sense of having stumbled upon a stack of old newspapers someone has secretly stashed in a forgotten corner of the attic - interesting, but not notably edifying. And a sad aspect of this whole enterprise is that Eddie felt compelled to publish his beloved diary as a necessity to hold at bay the wolf of poverty that always seemed to lurk at the door throughout his long life as a writer.

Ray Jenkins was editorial page editor of The Evening Sun until 1992. Until his retirement he had worked for newspapers for 40 years. He is a lawyer, was a Nieman Fellow in 1964 and won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing political corruption in 1955.

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