On this day in 1819, Herman Melville was born in New York City. Readers remember Melville as a great American novelist -- the greatest American novelist, perhaps -- but before he became a writer, he was an adventurous young man who spent years sailing around the world. (Those adventures included a stint in jail for participating in a mutiny aboard a whaling ship, three weeks living among "cannibals" in the South Pacific, and a vicious campaign against Christian missionaries in Hawaii.) After finally settling down into adulthood, Melville's early years would inspire much of his writing, including his greatest work, Moby-Dick.
As unbelievable as it sounds today, Moby-Dick met mixed reviews from critics when it debuted in 1851. Decades passed before America fell in love with Melville's masterpiece, but by the time The Atlantic published a pair of critical essays analyzing the novel in the 1940s, it had assumed its rightful place within the pantheon of American literature.
To celebrate Melville's birth, we've selected passages from those essays that explain three theories why Moby-Dick remains "one of the great books of the world."