James Tiptree, Jr. by Julie Phillips

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James Tiptree, Jr.

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

In the biography James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon Julie Phillips describes how, in late 1976, it was discovered that science-fiction writer James Tiptree, Jr., who was also well known for his correspondence with his readers, was actually a woman named Alice Bradley Sheldon. Born Alice Bradley, she described herself as “nothing but an old lady from Virginia.” After her identity was discovered, she continued to write and to publish, but somehow her work had lost its edge. Nonetheless, the science-fiction world was electrified all over again nine years later, when it was announced that Alice Sheldon had killed her husband and then turned the gun on herself, in what was believed to be a suicide pact.

Although Tiptree was reticent about his life, Alice Sheldon’s early life was documented in extraordinary detail. Her mother, Mary Hastings Bradley, was a society beauty, a novelist, and an adventurer who traveled extensively in Africa with her husband and Alice. Indeed, Alice’s adventures in Africa became the stuff of two of Bradley’s books for children. Alice was with her parents when they traveled with Carl Akeley on an expedition intended to collect gorilla specimens for the American Museum of Natural History but also to discourage further hunting of gorillas by having Bradley shoot one. The intended message was that if a woman could kill one, why would a man want to do so? Alice hoped she would have a gun of her own, just like her mother’s, but this was not permitted.

Mary Bradley’s position on the expedition was complex. Bradley had been criticized for leading such an adventurous life. She worked hard to show that she could lead the life she chose and still be a good mother to her daughter. Alice’s role was to be the perfect daughter, willing to be carried across Africa like a parcel, always neatly dressed and well behaved, a credit to her mother. Alice Bradley learned early on that everything must be subordinated to her mother’s needs, that all must appear conventional, yet beneath the perfect appearance there was the heart of a rebel, an element of Alice’s character that came to the fore as she grew older. She was a bright child and a good scholar, but she had few if any friends and found it difficult to fit in. Her entire life was be characterized by a search for self.

As she grew older, it was not clear what Alice would do with her life, although there was some vague thought she might be an artist, for she had talent. However, the messages she received from her mother were contradictory. On one hand, Mary Hastings Bradley wanted her daughter to have a career, as she had had, although what form this career might take was uncertain; on the other hand, she wanted her daughter to find a good man and make a decent marriage. She was determined her daughter would make her debut into society, which she duly did, only to elope a few days later with the first man to propose to her, a charming and wealthy young man named William (Bill) Davey, who wanted to be a writer. The couple moved to Berkeley, California, where both attended university classes. Bill encouraged Alice to paint. The marriage was not a success. Davey was a drunkard, hopeless with money, while Alice had no interest in keeping house for him. Instead, she worked at her art and learned to shoot. The marriage was physically violent and came to an end in 1940. Divorced, Alice looked around for something else to do with her life. She decided to join the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. Her organizational skills found an outlet in working as a supply officer, something at which she proved to be successful, though others resented her abilities. Alice then transferred to Washington, to the Pentagon, and found herself working in the new discipline of photointelligence, examining and interpreting aerial reconnaissance photos. This work took her to Europe, where her new commanding officer, Colonel Huntingdon Sheldon, generally known as Ting, fell...

(The entire section is 1,473 words.)