Many critics describe Blood Meridian as one of the most important novels of the 20th century. It is a revisionist Western in which McCarthy explores the era after the Mexican-American War. During this time, vigilante, mercenary gangs patrolled the Mexican/American border in pursuit of Apache Indians whose existence threatened the introduction of Western civilization. The novel has been celebrated for its historical accuracy as well as McCarthy's signature literary style, which is evident in the densely poetic yet matter-of-fact language, the characters who straddle both gritty reality and familiar archetype, and its pervasively bleak and violent atmosphere.
Cormac McCarthy wrote Blood Meridian after receiving one of the MacArthur Foundation's prestigious and lucrative fellowships in 1981. At the time, McCarthy was living in a motel in Knoxville, Tennessee run by one of his friends, and he used the MacArthur money to conduct extensive research. McCarthy visited all of the locales he mentions in Blood Meridian and even learned Spanish in order to make the novel more authentic.
Random House published Blood Meridian in 1985. At the time, the novel garnered little critical attention, although the New York Times' Caryn James described it as a "slap in the face," praising the novel as "impossible to ignore." At the end of her review, however, James decries the novel's lack of coherence and rigor. Admittedly, many critics and readers alike have found Blood Meridian difficult to get through. Even theorist Harold Bloom, one of its most devoted champions, admits its difficulty. However, the novel is still widely considered to be McCarthy's defining work.
Many critics compare Blood Meridian to William Faulkner's work; in fact, Bloom has called Blood Meridian "the greatest single book since Faulkner's As I Lay Dying." Others have compared Judge Holden to Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, which was supposedly one of McCarthy's great influences while he was writing Blood Meridian.
McCarthy rarely grants interviews on his work, and has never spoken publicly about Blood Meridian, leaving most of the critical theory to be based on personal interpretation. It is widely accepted that the sections about the Glanton gang are based on the memoir of Samuel Chamberlain, who rode with the real John Joel Glanton from 1849 to 1850. Judge Holden appears in Chamberlain's account, as well. Chamberlain's book has often been called unreliable, though it is best to remember that while Blood Meridian is steeped in history, its focus is not on fact but on impressions and ideas of the time.