Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1429
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 in love with her.
The child of kind but emotionally distant parents, sent to boarding school, and uncertain of what he would do with his life, Ting had much in common with Alice, and the relationship flourished. Whether Alice loved Ting as a husband or more as a friend is open to debate. Throughout her life, Alice was attracted to women as well as to men, although her attempts to establish relationships with other women were invariably unrequited. She also chafed against the obligations that she felt society placed upon women, the very restrictions her mother had sought to push aside in her own life but that she had inevitably placed upon her own daughter.
Nonetheless, Ting and Alice were married and set out on a new adventure, running a chicken farm in New Jersey. The idea was that for four or five months of the year they would work intensely, while the rest of the time would be available for other enterprises. Alice, having abandoned her painting, had turned instead to writing, something else she had done throughout her life. The chicken farm experiment, while not disastrous, was not a success; when Alice reemerged, it was to pursue a degree in psychology, eventually earning herself a doctorate. Even in her chosen academic career, however, Alice could not find a place for herself. As her academic career ended, she turned again to writing and to science fiction.
It was not uncommon for female science-fiction writers to disguise their gender by using a pseudonym or their initials rather than their full names. More than one editor refused to believe that women could write science fiction. Thus, “James Tiptree, Jr.,” a pseudonym concocted as a joke by Alice and Ting, was to become an important escape for Alice Sheldon. Through Tiptree’s persona, she was at last able to engage fully with the world and give free rein to those parts of her character that an “old lady from Virginia” perhaps should not have, especially not while her mother was still alive. Tiptree was everything Alice longed to be and felt she could not be: cheerful, boisterous, witty, competent, mysterious, and gregarious.
As Tiptree’s stories became known, she began to receive and respond to fan mail, and she became as well known for her correspondence as for her stories. The stories reflected the darker side of Alice’s personality and her growing concern with the state of the world, whereas Tiptree’s personality was easygoing. The apparent disparity between the man who wrote with such understanding about women and the bon vivant of correspondence was much discussed. How did he achieve such understanding of the female psyche? When Tiptree’s real identity was revealed, many claimed to have known all along, but the general response to the news suggests that few people guessed. Certainly, no one had realized that fiction writer Raccoona Sheldon, a second identity that Alice Sheldon created, was in any way connected with Tiptree.
Once everyone knew, Tiptree fell silent. Alice continued to write but had lost the freedom that Tiptree gave her. The stories dwindled away. All of her life, Alice had suffered from depression, and by 1987 she had convinced herself that Ting, thirteen years older and with failing eyesight, was in very poor health. She had talked about suicide before, and she and Ting seemed to have agreed on a suicide pact. However, evidence suggests that even at eighty-four, Ting was not ready to die. On the night of May 18, 1987, as Ting lay sleeping, Alice Sheldon shot him in the head. Then, after calling her lawyer and her stepson, she turned the gun on herself.
While she struggled throughout life to find a place where she felt comfortable, in death Alice Sheldon has proved an inspiration to women and men alike. She often wondered whether she had been cowardly in publishing under a man’s name; a proper feminist would have published under her own name. In 1991, the writers Pat Murphy and Karen Joy Fowler established an award to promote science fiction that reenvisions gender roles, an award that is supported and funded by an extraordinary grassroots movement within the science-fiction fan community and that has proved hugely successful in expanding perceptions of science fiction.
Whether Tiptree or Sheldon would have appreciated the existence of a biography is debatable, but their many admirers are in agreement that Phillips has produced an exemplary account of their strangely intertwined lives.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 44
Booklist 102, nos. 19/20 (June 1-15, 2006): 29.
Entertainment Weekly, nos. 891/892 (August 18, 2006): 142.
Fantasy & Science Fiction 111, nos. 4/5 (October/November, 2006): 40-50.
Kirkus Reviews 74, no. 10 (May 15, 2006): 510.
The New York Times 155 (August 3, 2006): E6.
The New York Times Book Review 155 (August 20, 2006): 1-8.
Publishers Weekly 253, no. 12 (March 20, 2006): 44.
The Times Literary Supplement, October 13, 2006, p. 27.
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