I recently read a biography that has stayed with me, thundering through my thoughts with a swirl of questions and emotions. Sometimes reading about a remarkable life can do that to you–a person can become so alive, their facets and quirks so intimately felt, that you feel enriched when you enter their world and bereft when you leave it.
The biography that has been haunting me is Julie Phillips’ James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. Alice Sheldon was born in 1915 to wealthy, well-connected Chicago parents. Her mother, Mary Hastings Bradley, was a popular writer in her day, and her father, a lawyer, plunged the family into a life of adventure in untrammeled Africa while exposing Alice to literary salons back home.
Alice lived a life of adventure full of unexpected twists and turns for a young woman of her era. She married young and when that marriage ended, she joined the first women’s Army corps during World War II which led to photographic interpretation work for the C.I.A. She married Huntington Sheldon, also C.I.A., but rather than leading a domestic life pursued advanced degrees in psychology.
But in the 1960s, Alice Sheldon began writing science fiction stories under the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr. Tiptree’s stories caught the attention of the biggest names in the business from Harlan Ellison to Robert Silverberg to Frederik Pohl. Tiptree corresponded, as a man, with Ursula K. Le Guin and many others. Alice hid behind Tiptree but also soared and fearlessly explored issues of gender, sexuality and exploration through the stories that she wrote. When Alice was revealed in 1976, it rocked the science fiction literary world.
Julie Phillip’s biography captures an extraordinary woman and a keen, intelligent mind through Sheldon’s letters, diary entries, short stories and lived experiences. I finished reading about the life of Alice B. Sheldon/James Tiptree, Jr. with a hunger for more. My book group will be discussing her stories in August and I cannot wait to immerse myself once again in the imagination and resonant voice of this mercurial, intriguing figure in the literary firmament.