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O Pioneers!

New lives of Twain and Melville, who remade the map of American letters

Melville: His World and Work
By Andrew Delbanco
Knopf, 415 pp., illustrated, $30

Mark Twain: A Life
By Ron Powers
Free Press, 722 pp., illustrated, $35

They wrote about savages, slaves, and civilizers, river rascals, sea dogs, and city dwellers, isolatos, innocents, and incorrigibles. They anticipated what Walker Percy called the great secret of the 20th century: ''only the haters seem alive." And they produced America's greatest novels: ''Moby-Dick" and ''Huckleberry Finn."

For almost a century, biographers have invaded the posthumous privacy of Herman Melville and Mark Twain, seeking to unlock the mysteries in the making of masterpieces. The sources of creativity, however, are hard to identify. ''He is the ordinary man -- plus genius," a profiler once said of Twain, inaccurately, unhelpfully, and not atypically. Now, Andrew Delbanco and Ron Powers go boldly where many have gone before. Delbanco concentrates on the intellectual and social context out of which Melville's work grew. Powers is after the man, public and private. Writing with grace and authority, they make their subjects come alive, as artists of their era -- and ours.

During his lifetime, Melville had less than 15 minutes of fame. His novel ''Typee," the sexually suggestive story of a castaway, living with the natives in paradise, loosely based on the author's three-year sojourn on a whaling ship in the South Pacific, was successful enough to generate a sequel, ''Omoo." After that, things went downhill. Melville failed to win back his audience with ''Mardi," a political satire, ''Redburn," or ''White-Jacket." In 1850, he began writing ''Moby-Dick," envisioning it as ''an enjoyable book." But something changed, as Melville worked, with Shakespeare and the Bible close at hand, ''in a mesmeric state." A year later he was finished. ''Don't you buy it, don't you read it," he warned a friend. ''A Polar Wind blows through it, and birds of prey hover over it." ''Moby-Dick" is the story of the 30-man crew of the Pequod, with its white officers, dark deck hands, and the brilliant, mad, demagogic Captain Ahab, in hot pursuit of malevolent forces, embodied in the white whale who had dismembered him. The novel, Delbanco affirms, is a work of the 20th-century imagination. Melville's contemporaries didn't know what to make of it. In the English edition, the epilogue was left out, prompting reviews to complain about a narrative told by Ishmael, who had evidently drowned. In the United States, many of the 3,000 copies of the first print run remained unsold.

A defiant Melville responded with ''Pierre," a novel about nature, Delbanco writes, not as ''the visage of God, but a mocking reflection of ourselves, a vast blankness on which men imprint their fantasies." Part philosophy, part farce, ''Pierre" was also a bitter commentary on Melville's failing literary reputation and perhaps his troubled marriage. Reviewers thought the novel ''emanated from a lunatic asylum." Reduced to genteel poverty, Melville suffered eye strain, back pain, and depression. He produced a few magnificent short stories, and more than a few stinkers, but after the age of 40, with the exception of ''Billy Budd," Melville confined himself to poetry. He died in obscurity in 1891.

Delbanco recognizes that Melville was sui generis. Nonetheless, he speculates, brilliantly, though without much documentation, that residence in New York City in the 1840s molded Melville's modernism, stylistically and substantively. Melville's fiction is rarely set in New York, or any city. But New York was ''the birthplace of Melville's democratic imagination," leading him to embrace ''the as yet unrealized ideal of a nation comprehending all peoples," an ideal at the heart of ''Moby-Dick." The city also taught him about loneliness and powerlessness, lessons he applied in ''Bartleby the Scrivener."

Equally important, for Delbanco, New York liberated Melville from the limits of conventional narrative. His prose acquired ''the feeling of quickened pulse, of some unpredictable excitement, in aftermath or anticipation." And he experimented with formlessness: His books ''became eclectic miscellanies, with innumerable tangents spoking out from the spine of the story, each reaching for some new analogy that diverts our attention to some novel sensation, or topic, or fact."

Of course, these were the very qualities that turned off Melville's 19th-century readers. Did Melville know it? In ''Billy Budd," a novel with ''an almost ethereal combination of sadness and serenity," Delbanco reminds us, Melville has Captain Vere affirm that ''forms, measured forms are everything." Like Billy Budd, Melville paid a price for striking out at them. Did he regret it? ''Life is so short and so ridiculous and irrational," he wrote a few years before he died, ''that one knows not what to make of it, unless -- well, finish the sentence yourself."

The applause never stopped for Mark Twain. Born Samuel Clemens in Missouri in 1835, he was a sickly child, a sleepwalker, whose formal education ended at age 12. After a stint in printing offices back east, Sammy became an apprentice pilot on the Mississippi, making 120 trips up and down the river. He sat out the Civil War in the Nevada Territory and California, failed at mining, and then began writing, first as a reporter and then of frontier sketches. After trying out several names, including W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blab, to provide a smidgen of protection for his libelous lampoons, he became Mark Twain. With the tall tale ''Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog," Powers observes, Twain won recognition as a writer with a special gift for vernacular speech, rough action, and ''skepticism toward the very idea of lofty instruction." A minor celebrity, Twain published ''Innocents Abroad," based on his travels to the Holy Land. After that, the hits just kept on coming.

Biographers have portrayed Twain as a complex man, prone to pessimism, especially after the death of his daughter Susy, in 1896. ''Of the demonstrably wise," he wrote, ''there are but two: those who commit suicide, and those who keep their reasoning faculties atrophied with drink." From a different angle, Powers captures Twain in high definition as chronically insecure and terrified of failure; a serpent ''lay coiled just beneath Mark Twain's ingratiating charm." When his hapless brother Orion asked how he might raise some cash, Twain told him to write ''The Autobiography of a Coward" and ''Confessions of a Life That Was a Failure." If readers recognized that he was an ass, unaware of his own stupidity, ''your work will be a triumph."

Twain never grew up. Powers compares him on the lecture circuit to a rock star, pampered, petulant, irritable, intoxicated. Toward his rival, Bret Harte, he ''did not know the meaning of magnanimous." Twain was naive: taken in by the bogus claims of the inventor of the Paige typesetter, he frittered away hundreds of thousands of dollars, bringing his family to the brink of bankruptcy. He was capable of colossal bad taste, roasting the gray eminences Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Oliver Wendell Holmes at a tony 70th birthday party for John Greenleaf Whittier. But, when chastised, he deferred to surrogate parents, abasing himself before the New England worthies and, in his fiction, excising prose they thought profane and coarse.

This Twain is not easy to like. Yet one can almost hear Powers singing, ''Let's hear it for the boy." After all, it was the boy in Twain who preferred a season in John Bunyan's heaven to reading Henry James's ''The Bostonians," and eternity in hell to returning a runaway slave to his owner. The boy gave us Tom, Huck, Pap, Pudd'nhead, a prince, pretenders, a passel of paupers, and a Connecticutter cornered with corpses in a king's courtyard. He Americanized American literature, Powers concludes, as ''a lean, blunt, vivid chronicle of American self-invention."

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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