Blood Meridian, declared by Time Magazine as one of the most important novels of the 20th century, is on its surface a revisionist Western. It explores the period after the Mexican-American War, when vigilante, mercenary gangs patrolled the Mexican/American border in pursuit of dangerous Apache Indians whose existence threatened the new civilization that was growing there. However, while the novel is rooted in the history of the time, its reputation is based mostly on its literary pedigree, evident in its densely poetic yet matter-of-fact language, its characters who straddle both gritty reality and archetype, and its pervasively violent and bleak atmosphere.
Cormac McCarthy wrote Blood Meridian after having received 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 so the money allowed a huge improvement in his life and freedom to write. The book required extensive research, and indeed has a strong historical component to it. McCarthy visited all the locales mentioned in the book, and even learned Spanish in order to give it more authenticity.
McCarthy lived off the MacArthur Fellowship while writing the novel, which was published by Random House 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," and praised the novel as "impossible to ignore." At the end of her review, however, she decries the novel's lack of coherence and and rigor. Admittedly, many critics have found Blood Meridian hard to get through. Even theorist Harold Bloom, one of its most devoted champions, admits its difficulty. However, today, the novel is considered McCarthy's defining work and, according to Time Magazine, one of the most important novels of the century.
Many critics compare the novel to the writings of William Faulkner. Bloom calls the book "the greatest single book since Faulkner's 'As I Lay Dying'. Others compare Judge Holden with Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, which was supposedly one of McCarthy's great influences when writing Blood Meridian.
McCarthy rarely grants interviews on his work, and has granted none on the topic of Blood Meridian, leaving much of the critical theory to be based on personal interpretations. 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 that 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.