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More About: A Diary of the Century by Edward Robb Ellis

February 15, 2011

I suppose I am drawn to the diary of Edward Robb Ellis because of his insatiable curiosity about everything and his desire to learn more about whatever came into his life.  He certainly had a reporter’s eye for news and what makes an interesting story.  Yet he went beyond the average reporter with “behind-the-curtain” observations on “the real story.”  I enjoyed his descriptive vignettes of the people, famous and not, that he met in his life.  I, too, study human behavior and find how people act endlessly fascinating.

He was fond of saying that an intellectual is a person excited by ideas, a concept he attributes to his wife, Ruth.  This 556 page edited diary is a page-turner for the intellectual reader.  I think the best diaries not only tell what happened, but how the diarist felt and what the diarist thought about his/her life and the world they lived in.

Ellis and I agree with Robert Louis Stevenson who said “There are not words enough in all Shakespeare to express the merest fraction of a man’s experience in an hour.”  The best diaries, like the best writing, know what to leave out.  But I am always stunned when someone tells me “I can’t keep a diary because I just don’t know what to write about.” Now that would be a person who is dead long before their death.   Ellis seemed to know what to leave out and what to bring in focus.  Some of the entries are long descriptive passages and others are short reflections only a few sentences long.  The impact can be the same.

I know that taking nearly 70 years of someone’s journal and reducing it to one book would show you only the cream of the writing.  What I suspect was left out was what I desired to read more of – the personal.  I could have been satisfied with less of the famous people and more sketches of the average.  What was kept in, that leapt from the pages, was his love of his wife Ruth and the extreme sense of loss he suffered for the 33 years without her.   Overall, this is a big, beautiful book and I highly recommend it to those who are attempting to record the story of their life.

Here are some samples of the reflections of Edward Robb Ellis:  “I define knowledge as a body of facts, and wisdom as knowledge of oneself.”  “The only thing that is really shocking is cruelty.”   “The most beautiful sound in the world is the laughter of children.”   “Occasional solitude is as necessary as food and drink.”   “As one ages time flows faster.”   “A single detail may reveal the universal in the particular.” “Years ago I made heroes of men and women with brilliant minds.  Now I admire people who are compassionate.” “Tragedy is unfulfilled potential.”  “I give you my all when I give you my attention.” “The only evil is hurting another or yourself.” Ellis believed “the invisible more significant than the visible.  For example – love.”  “Never in my life have I had an original thought.  The artist creates nothing; all he does is rearrange the pieces of reality that were born when the universe was born.  Truth slumbers within everyone.”

In 1976 Ellis published a plea for setting up an “American Diary Repository,” long before I had the same idea.  A Diary of the Century was published in 1995.  I read it in early 2001 and immediately wanted to fly to New York and meet him.  I was a few years too late.


Favorite Published Diary: A Diary of the Century by Edward Robb Ellis

February 10, 2011

I would like to begin talking about a few of my favorite published diaries.  I think my absolute top choice would have to be A Diary of the Century by Edward Robb Ellis, which contains selections from the diary he wrote for over 70 years.  Ellis was born in 1911 and died in 1998.  He was a newspaper reporter, diarist, and author of several books, most notably on New York and on the Great Depression.  His diaries are now archived in the Fales Library/Special Collections  in New York City.  The published diary is available through

A Diary of the Century opens with an introduction by Pete Hamill, whose first paragraph is a simple and  extraordinarily beautiful description of why we write:

“The diarist has one essential goal: to freeze time.  With each entry, he or she says that on this day, a day that will never again occur in the history of the world, I lived.  I lived in this city or that town, upon which the sun shone warmly or the rain fell steadily.  I ate breakfast, walked city streets or country roads, drove a car or entered a subway.  I worked.  I dreamed.  Other human beings said witty things to me, or stupid things, or brutal things;  or I the same to them.  I laughed.  I wept.  The newspapers told me about the fevers of politics, distant wars, and who won the ballgames.  I experienced a work of art or read a novel or heard music that would not leave my mind.  I was bored.  I was afraid.  I was brave.  I was cowardly.  I endured a headache.  I broke my leg.  I loved someone who did not love me back.  I suffered the death of a loved one.  This day will never come again, but here, in this diary, I will have it forever.  Casual reader, listen:  I, too, have lived.”

Pete Hamill has been a novelist, essayist and journalist for over 40 years.  He is also a New Yorker.  (

Although Edward Robb Ellis does not fall in the category of the “common” man and his diary has many entries about the rich and famous, I am drawn to the style of his diary,  perhaps because that is the type of diary I write.  Ellis writes like the reporter that he was – a record of the events of his life, with a background of the history taking place around him.  Unlike a reporter, he reveals his true feelings and emotions about those events, and says things about famous people that could not be printed in any paper.   I am especially intrigued with the deep insights that come to him through the discipline of writing for so many years.

In May of 1932, his elder sister tried to talk him out of keeping his journal. He wrote: “As usual, I’m going to ignore her advice.  What must be kept in mind is the fact that someone should have the courage and integrity to put down on paper all his life’s happenings precisely as they occurred.  It is my belief that the historian of the future will thank me.  In these pages he will not find a record of world deeds, mighty achievements, conquest.  What he will discover is the drama of the unfolding life of one individual, day after day after day.”

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