Who was James Tiptree Jr.?

Introduction

Alice Sheldon, January 1946.

Alice Bradley Sheldon (born Alice Hastings Bradley; 24 August 1915 to 19 May 1987) was an American science fiction and fantasy author better known as James Tiptree Jr., a pen name she used from 1967 to her death. It was not publicly known until 1977 that James Tiptree Jr. was a woman. From 1974 to 1985 she also used the pen name Raccoona Sheldon. Tiptree was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2012.

Tiptree’s debut story collection, Ten Thousand Light-Years from Home, was published in 1973 and her first novel, Up the Walls of the World, was published in 1978. Her other works include 1973 novelette “The Women Men Don’t See”, 1974 novella “The Girl Who Was Plugged In”, 1976 novella “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”, 1985 novel Brightness Falls from the Air, and 1990 short story “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever”.

Early Life, Family and Education

Alice Hastings Bradley came from a family in the intellectual enclave of Hyde Park, a university neighbourhood in Chicago. Her father was Herbert Edwin Bradley, a lawyer and naturalist, and her mother was Mary Hastings Bradley, a prolific writer of fiction and travel books. From an early age she travelled with her parents, and in 1921-1922, the family made their first trip to central Africa. During these trips, she played the role of the “perfect daughter, willing to be carried across Africa like a parcel, always neatly dressed and well behaved, a credit to her mother.” This later contributed to her short story, “The Women Men Don’t See.”

Between trips to Africa, Bradley attended school in Chicago. At the age of ten, she went to the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, which was an experimental teaching workshop with small classes and loose structure. When she was fourteen, she was sent to finishing school in Lausanne in Switzerland, before returning to the US to attend boarding school in Tarrytown in New York.

Adulthood and Early Career (1934 to 1967)

Bradley was encouraged by her mother to seek a career, but her mother also hoped that she would get married and settle down. In 1934, at age 19, she met William (Bill) Davey and eloped to marry him. She dropped out of Sarah Lawrence College, which did not allow married students to attend. They moved to Berkeley, California, where they took classes and Bill encouraged her to pursue art. The marriage was not a success; he was an alcoholic and irresponsible with money and she disliked keeping house. The couple divorced in 1940. Later on, she became a graphic artist, a painter, and – still under the name “Alice Bradley Davey” – an art critic for the Chicago Sun between 1941 and 1942.

After the divorce, Bradley joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps where she became a supply officer. In 1942 she joined the United States Army Air Forces and worked in the Army Air Forces photo-intelligence group. She later was promoted to major, a high rank for women at the time. In the army, she “felt she was among free women for the first time.” As an intelligence officer, she became an expert in reading aerial intelligence photographs.

In 1945, at the close of the war, while she was on assignment in Paris, she married her second husband, Huntington D. Sheldon, known as “Ting.” She was discharged from the military in 1946, at which time she set up a small business in partnership with her husband. The same year her first story (“The Lucky Ones”) was published in the 16 November 1946 issue of The New Yorker, and credited to “Alice Bradley” in the magazine. In 1952 she and her husband were invited to join the CIA, which she accepted. At the CIA, she worked as an intelligence officer, but she did not enjoy the work. She resigned her position in 1955 and returned to college.

She studied for her bachelor of arts degree at American University (1957-1959). She received a doctorate from George Washington University in Experimental Psychology in 1967. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on the responses of animals to novel stimuli in differing environments. During this time, she wrote and submitted a few science fiction stories under the name James Tiptree Jr., in order to protect her academic reputation.

Art Career

Bradley began illustrating when she was nine years old, contributing to her mother’s book, Alice in Elephantland, a children’s book about the family’s second trip to Africa, appearing in it as herself. She later had an exhibit of her drawings of Africa at the Chicago Gallery, arranged by her parents. Although she illustrated several of her mother’s books, she only sold one illustration during her lifetime, in 1931, to The New Yorker, with help from Harold Ober, a New York agent who worked with her mother. The illustration, of a horse rearing and throwing off its rider, sold for ten dollars.

In 1936, Bradley participated in a group show at the Art Institute of Chicago, to which she had connections through her family, featuring new American work. This was an important step forward for her painting career. During this time she also took private art lessons from John Sloan. Sheldon disliked prudery in painting. While examining an anatomy book for an art class, she noticed that the genitals were blurred, so she restored the genitals of the figures with a pencil.

In 1939, her nude self-portrait titled Portrait in the Country was accepted for the “All-American” biennial show at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C., where it was displayed for six weeks. While these two shows were considered big breaks, she disparaged these accomplishments, saying that “only second rate painters sold” and she preferred to keep her works at home.

By 1940, Bradley felt she had mastered all the techniques she needed and was ready to choose her subject matter. However, she began to doubt whether she should paint. She kept working at her painting techniques, fascinated with the questions of form, and read books on aesthetics in order to know what scientifically made a painting “good.” She stopped painting in 1941. As she was in need of a way to support herself, her parents helped her find a job as an art critic for the Chicago Sun.

Science Fiction Career (1967 to 1987)

Bradley discovered science fiction in 1924, when she read her first issue of Weird Tales, but she wouldn’t write any herself until years later. Unsure what to do with her new degrees and her new/old careers, she began to write science fiction. She adopted the pseudonym of James Tiptree Jr. in 1967. The name “Tiptree” came from a branded jar of marmalade, and the “Jr.” was her husband’s idea. In an interview, she said: “A male name seemed like good camouflage. I had the feeling that a man would slip by less observed. I’ve had too many experiences in my life of being the first woman in some damned occupation.” She also made the choice to start writing science fiction she, herself, was interested in and “was surprised to find that her stories were immediately accepted for publication and quickly became popular.”

Her first published short story was “Birth of a Salesman” in the March 1968 issue of Analog Science Fact & Fiction, edited by John W. Campbell. Three more followed that year in If and Fantastic. Other pen names that she used included “Alice Hastings Bradley”, “Major Alice Davey”, “Alli B. Sheldon”, “Dr. Alice B. Sheldon”, and “Raccoona Sheldon”.

Writing under the pseudonym Raccoona, she was not very successful getting published until her other alter ego, Tiptree, wrote to publishers to intervene.

The pseudonym was successfully maintained until late 1977, partly because, although “Tiptree” was widely known to be a pseudonym, it was generally understood that its use was intended to protect the professional reputation of an intelligence community official. Readers, editors and correspondents were permitted to assume gender, and generally, but not invariably, they assumed “male”. There was speculation, based partially on the themes in her stories, that Tiptree might be female. In 1975, in the introduction to Warm Worlds and Otherwise, a collection of Tiptree’s short stories, Robert Silverberg wrote: “[i]t 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.” Silverberg also likened Tiptree’s writing to Ernest Hemingway’s, arguing there was a “prevailing masculinity about both of them — that preoccupation with questions of courage, with absolute values, with the mysteries and passions of life and death as revealed by extreme physical tests, by pain and suffering and loss.”

“Tiptree” never made any public appearances, but she did correspond regularly with fans and other science fiction authors through the mail. When asked for biographical details, Tiptree/Sheldon was forthcoming in everything but her gender. According to her biographer, Julie Phillips, “No one had ever seen or spoken to the owner of this voice. He wrote letters, warm, frank, funny letters, to other writers, editors, and science fiction fans”. In her letters to fellow writers such as Ursula K. Le Guin and Joanna Russ, she would present herself as a feminist man; however, Sheldon did not present herself as male in person. Writing was a way to escape a male-dominated society, themes Tiptree explored in the short stories later collected in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. One story in particular offers an excellent illustration of these themes. “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” follows a group of astronauts who discover a future Earth whose male population has been wiped out; the remaining females have learned to get along just fine in their absence.

In 1976, “Tiptree” mentioned in a letter that “his” mother, also a writer, had died in Chicago – details that led inquiring fans to find the obituary, with its reference to Alice Sheldon; soon all was revealed. Once the initial shock was over, Sheldon wrote to Le Guin, one of her closest friends, confessing her identity. She wrote:

“I never wrote you anything but the exact truth, there was no calculation or intent to deceive, other than the signature which over 8 years became just another nickname; everything else is just plain me. The thing is, I am a 61-year-old woman named Alice Sheldon — nickname Alli – solitary by nature but married for 37 years to a very nice man considerably older [Huntington was 12 years her senior], who doesn’t read my stuff but is glad I like writing”.

After Sheldon’s identity was revealed, several prominent science fiction writers suffered some embarrassment. Robert Silverberg, who had argued that Tiptree could not be a woman from the evidence of her stories, added a postscript to his introduction to the second edition of Tiptree’s Warm Worlds and Otherwise, published in 1979. Harlan Ellison had introduced Tiptree’s story in the anthology Again, Dangerous Visions with the opinion that “[Kate] Wilhelm is the woman to beat this year, but Tiptree is the man”.

Only then did she complete her first full-length novel, Up the Walls of the World, which was a Doubleday Science Fiction Book Club selection. Before that she had worked on and built a reputation only in the field of short stories.

Themes

A constant theme in Sheldon’s work is feminism. In “The Women Men Don’t See” Sheldon gives the tale a unique feminist spin by making the narrator, Don Fenton, a male. Fenton judges the Parsons, the mother and daughter who are searching for alien life, based on their attractiveness and is agitated when they do not “fulfill stereotypical female roles,” according to Anne Cranny-Francis. In addition, Fenton’s inability to understand both the plight of woman and Ruth Parsons’ feelings of alienation further illustrate the differences of men and women in society. The theme of feminism is emphasized by “the feminist ideology espoused by Ruth Parsons and the contrasting sexism of Fenton”. The title of the short story itself reflects the idea that women are invisible during Sheldon’s time. As Francis states, “‘The Women Men Don’t See’ is an outstanding example … of the subversive use of genre fiction to produce an unconventional discursive position, the feminist subject.”

Death and Legacy

Sheldon continued writing under the Tiptree pen name for another decade. In the last years of her life she suffered from depression and heart trouble, while her husband began to lose his eyesight, becoming almost completely blind in 1986. In 1976, then 61-year-old Sheldon wrote Silverberg expressing her desire to end her own life while she was still able-bodied and active, but saying that she was reluctant to act upon this intention, as she didn’t want to leave her husband behind and couldn’t bring herself to kill him. Later she suggested to her husband that they make a suicide pact when their health began to fail. On 21 July 1977, she wrote in her diary: “Ting agreed to consider suicide in 4–5 years.”

Ten years later, on 19 May 1987, Sheldon shot her husband and then herself; she telephoned her attorney after the first shooting to announce her actions. They were found dead, hand-in-hand in bed, in their Virginia home. According to biographer Julie Phillips, the suicide note Sheldon left was written in September 1979 and saved until needed. Although the circumstances surrounding the Sheldons’ deaths are not clear enough to rule out murder-suicide, testimony of those closest to them suggests a suicide pact.

James Tiptree Jr. Award

The James Tiptree Jr. Award, honouring works of science fiction or fantasy that expand or explore our understanding of gender, was named in her honour. The award-winning science fiction authors Karen Joy Fowler and Pat Murphy created the award in February 1991. Works of fiction such as Half Life by Shelley Jackson and Light by M. John Harrison have received the award. Due to controversy over the circumstances of her and her husband’s deaths, the name of the award was changed to the Otherwise Award in 2019.

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