McCarthy often played down her role on the revolutionary left during the thirties, as in this passage from an interview in Paris Review 1961.
Well, I went to New York, and I began reviewing for The New Republic and The Nation—right away. I wrote these little book reviews. Then there was a series about the critics. The Nation wanted a large-scale attack on critics and book reviewers, chiefly those in the Herald Tribune, the Times, and the Saturday Review and so on. I had been doing some rather harsh reviews, so they chose me as the person to do this. But I was so young—I think I was twenty-two—that they didn’t trust me. So they got Margaret Marshall, who was the assistant literary editor then, to do it with me: actually we divided the work up and did separate pieces. But she was older and was supposed to be—I don’t know—a restraining influence on me; anyway, someone more responsible. That series was a great sensation at the time, and it made people very mad. I continued just to do book reviews, maybe one other piece about the theater, something like the one on the literary critics. And then nothing more until Partisan Review started. That was when I tried to write the detective story—before Partisan Review. To be exact, Partisan Review had existed as a Stalinist magazine, and then it had died, gone to limbo. But after the Moscow trials, the PR boys, Rahv and Phillips, revived it, got a backer, merged with some other people—Dwight Macdonald and others—and started it again. As an anti-Stalinist magazine. I had been married to an actor, and was supposed to know something about the theater, so I began writing a theater column for them. I didn’t have any other ambitions at all. Then I married Edmund Wilson, and after we’d been married about a week, he said, “I think you have a talent for writing fiction.” And he put me in a little room. He didn’t literally lock the door, but he said, “Stay in there!” And I did. I just sat down, and it just came. It was the first story I had ever written, really: the first story in The Company She Keeps. Robert Penn Warren published it in the Southern Review. And I found myself writing fiction, to my great surprise.
This was when you became involved in politics, wasn’t it?
No. Earlier. In 1936, at the time of the Moscow trials. That changed absolutely everything. I got swept into the whole Trotskyite movement. But by accident. I was at a party. I knew Jim Farrell—I’d reviewed one of his books, I think it was Studs Lonigan—in any case, I knew Jim Farrell, and I was asked to a party given by his publisher for Art Young, the old Masses cartoonist. There were a lot of communists at this party. Anyway, Farrell went around asking people whether they thought Trotsky was entitled to a hearing and to the right of asylum. I said yes, and that was all. The next thing I discovered I was on the letterhead of something calling itself the American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky. I was furious, of course, at this use of my name. Not that my name had any consequence, but still, it was mine. Just as I was about to make some sort of protest, I began to get all sorts of calls from Stalinists, telling me to get off the committee. I began to see that other people were falling off the committee, like Freda Kirchwey—she was the first to go, I think—and this cowardice impressed me so unfavorably that naturally I didn’t say anything about my name having got on there by accident, or at least without my realizing. So I stayed.
I began to know all the people on the committee. We’d attend meetings. It was a completely different world. Serious, you know. Anyway, that’s how I got to know the PR boys. They hadn’t yet revived the Partisan Review, but they were both on the Trotsky committee, at least Philip was. We—the committee, that is—used to meet in Farrell’s apartment. I remember once when we met on St. Valentine’s Day and I thought, Oh, this is so strange, because I’m the only person in this room who realizes that it’s Valentine’s Day. It was true! I had a lot of rather rich Stalinist friends, and I was always on the defensive with them, about the Moscow trial question, Trotsky and so on. So I had to inform myself, really, in order to conduct the argument. I found that I was reading more and more, getting more and more involved in this business. At the same time I got a job at Covici-Friede, a rather left-wing publishing house now out of business, also full of Stalinists. I began to see Philip Rahv again because Covici Friede needed some readers’ opinions on Russian books, and I remembered that he read Russian, so he came around to the office, and we began to see each other. When Partisan Review was revived I appeared as a sort of fifth wheel—there may have been more than that—but in any case as a kind of appendage of Partisan Review.
Then you hadn’t really been interested in politics before the Moscow trials?
No, not really. My first husband had worked at the Theater Union, which was a radical group downtown that put on proletarian plays, and there were lots of communists in that. Very few socialists. And so I knew all these people; I knew that kind of person. But I wasn’t very sympathetic to them. We used to see each other, and there were a lot of jokes. I even marched in May Day parades. Things like that. But it was all . . . fun. It was all done in that spirit. And I remained, as the Partisan Review boys said, absolutely bourgeois throughout. They always said to me very sternly, “You’re really a throwback. You’re really a twenties figure.”