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James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldonby Julie Phillips
"Phillips's account of Sheldon's evasion and ultimate unveiling provides an engrossing read. Even more interesting is Phillips's take on Sheldon's increasingly isolated life after the truth about Tiptree was revealed....The portrait that emerges captures a complicated woman who circumscribed assumptions of gender while struggling with their constraints." Anastasia Masurat, Bitch (read the entire Bitch Magazine review)
Synopses & Reviews
Tiptree burst onto the science fiction scene in the 1970s with a series of hard-edged, provocative short stories. Then the cover was blown: the author was actually a 61-year-old woman named Alice Sheldon — world traveler, debutante, chicken farmer, CIA agent, and experimental psychologist. This fascinating biography is based on full access to her papers.
"Journalist Phillips has achieved a wonder: an evenhanded, scrupulously documented, objective yet sympathetic portrait of a deliberately elusive personality: Alice Sheldon (19151987), who adopted the persona of science fiction writer James Tiptree Jr. Working from Sheldon's (and Tiptree's) few interviews; Sheldon's professional papers, many unpublished; and the papers of Sheldon's writer-explorer-socialite mother, Phillips has crafted an absorbing mlange of several disparate lives besides Sheldon's, each impacting hers like a deadly off-course asteroid. From Sheldon's sad poor-little-rich-girlhood to her sadder suicide (by a prior pact first shooting her blind and bedridden husband), Sheldon, perpetually wishing she'd been born a boy, made what she called 'endless makeshift' attempts to express her tormenting creativity as, among others, a debutante, a flamboyant bohemian, a WAC officer, a CIA photoanalyst, and a research scientist before producing Tiptree's 'haunting, subversive, many-layered [science] fiction' at 51. Sheldon masked her authorship until 1976, and afterward produced little fiction, feeling that a woman writing as a man could not be convincing. Through all the ironic sorrows of a life Sheldon wished she hadn't had to live as a woman, Phillips steadfastly and elegantly allows one star, bright as the Sirius Sheldon loved, to gleam. 16 pages of b&w photos." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"If you lived in McLean, Va., in the 1960s and '70s, you probably ran into Alice B. Sheldon. You might have seen her shopping for dresses at Lord & Taylor's or buying gardening supplies at Hechinger's. But you would not have known that under the pseudonym 'James Tiptree Jr.,' she wrote works that were at the vortex of gender wars that raged in the world of science fiction. Sheldon (1915-87)... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) was the most important sf writer ever to live in the Washington area. She also was, in her varied career, a psychologist, a CIA officer and a chicken farmer. Her biographer, Julie Phillips, combines diligent archival work with more than 40 interviews to successfully portray one of sf's most brilliant — and tortured — authors. Sheldon was born Alice Bradley in Chicago. Her mother, Mary Bradley, was an accomplished popular novelist and lecturer. Her father, Herbert, was a real estate developer who made enough money to pursue his fantasy of exploring Africa. The Bradleys made three trips to Africa from 1921 onward, taking their daughter with them each time. The expeditions did little to advance science but provided Mary Bradley with material for several best-sellers, some featuring Alice. But for a 6-year-old Alice, seeing animals routinely die in the wilderness was emotionally scarring. Though intelligent, Alice soon ran into the barriers imposed on women of her generation. For the rest of her life, she rebelled against femininity — cotillions, fashion, frills — and the idea that men command and women obey. 'Being stuck in traditional roles was one of the great sources of Alice's anger,' Phillips writes, but 'often that anger was directed at other women. About girls and women, Alice was always ambivalent. She wanted to like them, but was regularly disappointed by their failure to take their future seriously, by their artificiality, later by their reluctance to think politically and their willingness to put up with the status quo.' In her twenties, Phillips argues, Alice concluded that 'the only way to survive as an intelligent woman was to think of herself as a secret exception — not really a woman at all.' Such thinking led her to adopt a male pseudonym 30 years later. Sheldon went to Sarah Lawrence and dabbled in painting and writing, but dropped out. After an unfortunate first marriage, she found some happiness in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps. She became a skilled photo interpreter, able to pick out targets for Allied bombers. The Army rewarded her by shipping her to Germany, where she spent the last year of the war. The colonel commanding the intelligence unit where she worked was Huntington 'Ting' Sheldon. They dated and married in 1945. After a failed venture in chicken farming, Alice Sheldon spent three years interpreting photos for the CIA. (Ting remained a high-ranking CIA officer until his retirement.) She went back to college, getting her bachelor's degree and, in 1965, a doctorate in psychology from George Washington University. Not wanting to teach, Sheldon decided to try writing science fiction. We know very little about why she liked sf. When she was a teenager, an uncle introduced her to pulp sf magazines. In the 1950s, she tried to sell a few stories; all were rejected. Like much else in her life, her development as an sf writer remains cloudy and obscure. But when she started writing again in her fifties, she had become a mature artist. Sheldon thought her professional career as a psychologist would be ruined if her love for sf was found out, so she decided to write under a pseudonym. One day at the supermarket, she found a jar of Tiptree jam from England. Inspired, she became 'James Tiptree Jr.' Science fiction at the time was in a war between the 'Old Wave' that believed in scientific accuracy and a 'New Wave' that made literary values paramount. Tiptree's work fell into both camps — scientifically accurate but passionately concerned with gender and power. In the award-winning novella 'Houston, Houston, Do You Read?' (1974), Tiptree portrayed a world where male astronauts return to an Earth where an epidemic has wiped out all men, leaving an all-female society of clones who have eradicated war, hierarchy and violence. In 'The Women Men Don't See' (1972), tough CIA operative Don Fenton hopes to save some women from an alien invasion, only to find that the women prefer the aliens to being ruled by men. 'What women do is survive,' one of the women tells Fenton. 'We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine.' As Tiptree, Sheldon acquired a reputation in sf as the man who really understood women. While keeping her distance from the field and keeping her background mysterious, she wrote long, passionate letters to Ursula Le Guin full of news about Le Guin's family, gossip and discussions of favorite stories and poems. To other correspondents, Tiptree displayed rage and pain. (These emotions, Phillips writes, may well have been enhanced by Sheldon's excessive use of coffee, cigarettes and amphetamines.) In 1973, editor Harry Harrison said he would be in Washington and invited Tiptree to come downtown and have a drink. Tiptree declined the invitation. 'My life is a mixed up mess right now,' she wrote. 'I have personal problems like other people have termites. I'm barely viable ... The last time well-meaning pals tried to cheer me up, I ended sitting around with my .38 in my mouth.' 'The disparity between Alli's (Sheldon's) pretended gender and her real feelings was really confusing and bewildering,' Le Guin said in an interview with Phillips. 'It's kind of upsetting, that sort of insecurity in a man.' For several years in the 1970s, Sheldon had to deal with her aging, ailing mother. In 1976, Mary Bradley died at age 94. In letters, Tiptree had written about a mother who was an African explorer, and sf writers read the obituaries and made the connection between Sheldon and Tiptree. After her male pseudonym was revealed, Sheldon wrote little for three years. Her later work lacked the passion and force of her 'male' writing. As critic John Clute notes, James Tiptree's major theme was death. 'It is very rarely that a James Tiptree story,' Clute writes, 'does not directly deal with death and end in a death of the spirit, or of all hope, or of the body, or of the race.' 'I've lived so deep under masks,' Sheldon wrote interviewer Charles Platt in 1982, 'my interior was built to satisfy me alone — I have lived almost 60 years alone, mentally, and quite content to have it so.' For much of the 1980s, she told several of her correspondents that she would kill herself when Ting died. She had no close friends and was an atheist. So when Ting gradually went blind, Alice Sheldon decided that the only solution was to kill him and commit suicide, which she did in 1987. Her suicide note had been written eight years earlier. In sf, Alice Sheldon's chief legacy is the James Tiptree Award, given annually for the best feminist sf. Her work blazed a trail that other women have followed. Julie Phillips does an excellent job in telling Sheldon's story. Martin Morse Wooster is a former editor of the Wilson Quarterly and the American Enterprise." Reviewed by Martin Morse Wooster, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"Phillips' long-overdue biography probes the mystery behind Sheldon's clandestine lifestyle while mapping out the many adventurous turns in her continuously reinvented identity as she changed roles from graphic artist and CIA agent to psychologist and award-winning author." Booklist
"Phillips is more than adept at plumbing Sheldon's writing to expose her anger at the role gender plays in sex, creativity and power. A compelling portrait of a conflicted feminist." Kirkus Reviews
"Ms. Phillips does a fine, perceptive job of piecing together the patchwork of her subject's personality." New York Times
"From the opening montage of contradictory scenes in her subject's amazing life, to its copious citations of sources, Julie Phillips' biography of science fiction's trickster genius is a wonder." Seattle Times
James Tiptree, Jr., burst onto the science fiction scene in the late 1960s with a series of hard-edged, provocative stories. He redefined the genre with such classics as Houston, Houston, Do You Read? and The Women Men Don't See. For nearly ten years he wrote and carried on intimate correspondences with other writers--Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, and Ursula K. Le Guin, though none of them knew his true identity. Then the cover was blown on his alter ego: "he" was actually a sixty-one-year-old woman named Alice Bradley Sheldon. A feminist, she took a male name as a joke--and found the voice to write her stories.
Based on extensive research, exclusive interviews, and full access to Alice Sheldon's papers, Julie Phillips has penned a biography of a profoundly original writer and a woman far ahead of her time.
James Tiptree, Jr. burst onto the science fiction scene in the 1970s with a series of hardedged, provocative short stories. Hailed as a brilliant masculine writer with a deep sympathy for his famale character, he penned such classics as Houston, Houston, Do You Read?and The Women Men Don't See. For years he corresponded with Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison,Ursula Le Guin. No one knew his true identity. Then the cover was blown on his alter ego: A sixty-one-year old woman named Alice Sheldon. As a child, she explored Africa with her mother. Later, made into a debutante, she eloped with one of the guests at the party. She was an artist, a chicken farmer, aWorld War II intelligence officer, a CIA agent, an experimental psychologist. Devoted to her second husband, she struggled with her feelings for women. In 1987, her suicide shocked friends and fans. The James Tiptree, Jr.Award was created to honor science fiction or fantasy that explores our understanding of gender. This fascinating biography, ten years in the making, is based on extensive research, exclusive interviews, and full access to Alice Sheldon's papers
Julie Phillips has written about books, film, feminism, and cultural politics for Newsday, Interview, Mademoiselle, and for Ms. and The Village Voice, where her original articles on James Tiptree, Jr., appeared. Born in Seattle, she worked as a journalist in New York and now lives in Amsterdam with her husband and their two children.
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year
A New York Times Notable Book of the Year
An American Library Association Notable Book of the Year
James Tiptree, Jr., burst onto the science fiction scene in the late 1960s with a series of hard-edged, provocative stories. He redefined the genre with such classics as Houston, Houston, Do You Read?and The Women Men Don't See. He was hailed as a brilliant writer with a deep sympathy for his female characters.
For nearly ten years he carried on intimate correspondences with other writers—Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, and Ursula K. Le Guin, to name a few. None of them knew his true identity. He was so reclusive that he was widely believed to be a top-secret government agent. Then the cover was blown on his alter ego: a mysterious sixty-one-year-old woman named Alice Bradley Sheldon.
A native of Chicago, Alice traveled the globe with her mother, the writer and hunter Mary Hastings Bradley. At nineteen, she eloped with the poet who had been seated on her left at her debut. She became an artist, a critic for the Chicago Sun, an army officer, a CIA analyst, and an expert on the psychology of perception. Beautiful, theatrical, and sophisticated, she developed close friendships with people she never met. Devoted to her second husband, she struggled with her feelings for women. An outspoken feminist, she took a male name as a joke—and found the voice to write her stories.
Alice Sheldon's bold appropriation of a "masculine" style and a male identity (she once contributed to a feminist symposium as one of the "sensitive men") not only demolishes assumptions about gendered writing, it speaks, in a way no other writer's life has, to the mystery of the writing persona. Only when she became someone else could she tell the truth about herself. Only in writing about the alien could she speak about her body and her experience.
Tiptree stands alongside Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. Le Guin as one of the most important and exciting writers of speculative literature. As new generations of readers are drawn to her prescient work, her passionate life and her suicide in 1987 continue to haunt those who knew and admired her.
With ten years of work, Julie Phillips has written a first-rate biography of Alice Sheldon. Based on extensive research, exclusive interviews, and full access to Alice Sheldon's papers, this is the biography of a profoundly original writer and a woman far ahead of her time.
"In Julie Phillips's engrossing and endlessly revelatory biography, the woman behind the alias is at last allowed to step into the spotlight, emerging as neither a malicious prankster nor a defiant contrarian, but simply as a writer for whom science fiction proved to be the ideal genre to tell her own story . . . [Phillips's]
writing achieves its own kind of narrative tension, a spell that obliges even the readers already clued in to Tiptree's secret to turn the book's pages with increasing suspense as they wait for its real-life inhabitants to catch up with them . . . [a] thoughtful and meticulous biography provides both the expert and the novice with a Rosetta stone to the Tiptree catalog — an opportunity to extract from these stories the many layers of personal resonance they once held only for Sheldon herself. And it gives a new generation of readers the chance to prove to Sheldon, who in her final years wrote that she was trying to become nothing,” just how supremely wrong she was."—Dave Itzkoff, The New York Times Book Review
"An incredible life, done elegant justice. Tiptree-Sheldon is one of the century's astonishing figures, somewhere between Katharine Hepburn, Philip K. Dick, and Billy Tipton."—Jonathan Lethem, bestselling author of The Fortress of Solitude
"An examplary biography of a fascinating life—the brilliantly elusive woman who, as a writer, called herself James Tiptree, Jr. Never oversimplifying, never over-interpreting, Julie Phillips illuminates a formidably complex psyche wihout invading it."—Ursula K. Le Guin, Hugo- and National Book Award-winning author of The Dispossessed
"The meticulous, emotionally intelligent biography of an extraordinary writer. Alice Sheldon is easily the most intriguing figure in late 20th-century American science fiction. Julie Phillips has given 'Tiptree' the book she deserves."—William Gibson, New York Times bestselling author of Pattern Recognition
"A fascinating subject, an engrossing read. Philips provides sharp, insightful portraits of the real Alice Sheldon, the fictional James Tiptree, Jr., and the complicated partnership of their work and lives. This is a biography written with equal parts sympathy, respect, research, and honesty. And a real page-turner, too."—Karen Joy Fowler, New York Times bestselling author of The Jane Austen Book Club
"In this deeply thoughtful, rivetingly readable biography of James Tiptree, Jr., Julie Phillips traces the life and work of a woman whose self-presentation in her writing made her seem so much 'like a man' that she confounded our culture's myths of gender and genre, convincing even the most sophisticated readers that 'Tiptree'—in 'real' life a woman named Allie Sheldon—was and had to be 'really' a man. This is a fascinating investigation of a fantastic literary career."—Sandra Gilbert, distinguished scholar and editor of The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women
"[James Tiptree, Jr.] documents not only an extraordinary life but all the fault lines of what it meant to be female in the twentieth century. I think this may be the rare case when a biography actually exceeds what I expect from a novel . . . I hope everyone reads this book."—Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out Of Carolina
"It is a first-rate biography, important and rewarding to everyone interested in science fiction or Tiptree's work or women's writing or Alli herself. It's a solid, scholarly job, and shows great sensitivity to Tiptree's life and work."—Joanna Russ, author of The Female Man
"Finely detailed biography of a woman whose ascension as a cult figure writing as a man was the most visible facet of her fascinating and, in the end, tragic life. Journalist Phillips's superb depiction of Alice B. Sheldon (1915-87) as the woman behind the persona of science-fiction writer James Tiptree is an extraordinary achievement. A Chicago debutante who survived a quickie society marriage and divorce, 'Alli' Bradley enlisted in the army and became a WWII intelligence officer. After the war, she married fellow veteran Huntingdon Sheldon, and they both joined the fledgling CIA. She also dabbled in graphic art and eventually earned a Ph.D. in experimental psychology. After more than a decade of publishing as 'Tiptree,' Sheldons secret was revealed. Her life ended in a double suicide with her ailing husband. Apart from the basic facts of her life, Sheldon's innermost thoughts were revealed to the world through her stories and the voluminous correspondence 'he' exchanged with close friends, who, like Tiptree's readers, had no idea that it was a woman speaking to them. Most, Phillips says, saw him as a manly man's writer, dealing with issues of sex and death—her writing was sometimes compared to Hemingway's—but one with an unusual talent for creating sympathetic female characters. Phillips is more than adept at plumbing Sheldon's writing to expose her anger at the role gender plays in sex, creativity and power. A compelling portrait of a conflicted feminist."—Kirkus Reviews
"Phillips' long-overdue biography probes the mystery behind Sheldon's clandestine lifestyle while mapping out the many adventurous turns in her continuously reinvented identity as she changed roles from graphic artist and CIA agent to psychologist and award-winning author. Beginning with Sheldon's childhood spent tagging along to Africa with her mother, noted travel writer Mary Bradley, Phillips follows 'Alli' from her formative years in a Swiss girls' school to her years working in a Pentagon subbasement to, finally, her almost whimsical turn as a sf author and eventual, premeditated suicide with her husband. Phillips draws on extensive interviews with surviving relatives and literary colleagues as well as Alli's revealing letters to write a compelling, sympathetic portrait of one of speculative fiction's most gifted and fascinating figures."—Booklist (starred review)
"Journalist Phillips has achieved a wonder: an evenhanded, scrupulously documented, objective yet sympathetic portrait of a deliberately elusive personality: Alice Sheldon (19151987), who adopted the persona of science fiction writer James Tiptree Jr. Working from Sheldon's (and Tiptree's) few interviews; Sheldon's professional papers, many unpublished; and the papers of Sheldon's writer-explorer-socialite mother, Phillips has crafted an absorbing mélange of several disparate lives besides Sheldon's, each impacting hers like a deadly off-course asteroid. From Sheldons sad poor-little-rich-girlhood to her sadder suicide (by a prior pact first shooting her blind and bedridden husband), Sheldon, perpetually wishing she'd been born a boy, made what she called 'endless makeshift' attempts to express her tormenting creativity as, among others, a debutante, a flamboyant bohemian, a WAC officer, a CIA photoanalyst, and a research scientist before producing Tiptree's 'haunting, subversive, many-layered [science] fiction' at 51. Sheldon masked her authorship until 1976, and afterward produced little fiction, feeling that a woman writing as a man could not be convincing. Through all the ironic sorrows of a life Sheldon wished she hadn't had to live as a woman, Phillips steadfastly and elegantly allows one star, bright as the Sirius Sheldon loved, to gleam."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
About the Author
Julie Phillips has written for Ms., The Village Voice, and many other magazines and newspapers.
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