TBR: James Tiptree, Jr.

In his 1975 introduction to Warm Worlds and Otherwise, by James Tiptree, Jr.  Robert Silverberg hypothesized about the reclusive author, who was the subject of widespread speculation in the sci-fi world.  In what has become the most famous passage, Silverberg wrote:

"It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing.  I don’t think the novels of Jane Austen could have been written by a man nor the stories of Ernest Hemingway by a woman, and in the same way I believe the author of the James Tiptree stories is male."

The passage is famous, of course, because behind the name of James Tiptree, Jr., the author was indeed a woman, as became widely known a few years later. 

This week’s book is a biography of that woman: James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, by Julie Phillips.  I’m usually not terribly interested in writers’ biographies, which are usually far less interesting than their writing, but this is an exception.  Sheldon’s life was every bit as fascinating as her writing — including a childhood that included safaris to Africa, an elopement with the man who sat next to her at her debut, a stint in the WACs and one in the CIA, a PhD in the psychology of perception — and Phillips does a fine job of taking the reader through it all.

Much to my surprise, I finished the book far more sympathetic to Silverberg’s mistake than I started it.  Phillips argues, convincingly, that Tiptree was far more than a pseudonym to Sheldon, but a full-fledged persona.  She quotes Sheldon as believing that there were two sexes — men and mothers — and she was neither.  As Tiptree she wrote with a confident voice that she couldn’t claim on her own, and she also engaged in long correspondences with other sci-fi writers and fans (including Ursula LeGuin and Joanna Russ).  When she was finally unmasked, she came somewhat unmoored, and struggled to find her writing voice again.

It is often hard to see clearly how gender roles and constraints affected individual women by reading their biographies.  Most women either lived within the expectations of their times, rarely bumping up against the limits, or were the extraordinary exceptions who don’t seem to have noticed that there were any limits.  What makes Sheldon fascinating is that she seems to have spent her life crossing the limits and then getting cold feet, trying to conform but bursting out.  In an early chapter on her boarding school experience, Phillips writes:

"Alice had the bad luck to be extremely pretty.  If she hadn’t been, she might have given up the popularity contest.  She might have studied harder, prepared for a career, and not cared what people thought.  She and the other awkward, bright girls might have been friends.  Instead she cared about appearances, practiced femininity and flirtation, and got addicted to the reward for being a pretty girl."

This pattern seems to have stayed with her for much of her life.  But forty years later, being Tiptree let her escape all that.

This was one of the Times notable books of the year.  It’s also one of my picks for the best books I read in 2006.

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