After I posted about the death of Octavia Butler a while back, I went totally off on an Octavia Butler kick, and I must say, I now count Parable of the Sower as one of my all-time personal favorite books. Parable of the Talents a bit less so, but the Sower is something I carry around with me, in my head, like Ursula LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossesed, or Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale or Oryx and Crake. I'm haunted by Butler's envisioning of those homeless refugees making their way up California.
I'm not a natural science fiction fan, or I didn't come to it naturally, being biased by spending all my reading on the literary side, from getting my M.F.A. I came in through cyberpunk, during another grad program.
But the story of James Tiptree Jr. being a psuedonym Alice Sheldon held a mild interest when I first heard it, some years ago. This Salon article by Laura Miller opens up a whole new side of things and I'm totally fascinated. Maybe it's how Miller constructs it, but like Tiptree's correspondents, I may even be seduced.
Here's my favorite bits...
Stranger than science fiction
Before JT Leroy there was James Tiptree Jr. -- the writer and alter ego of Alice Sheldon, a beautiful woman who struggled under the weight of her talent, depression and sexuality.
By Laura Miller
Aug. 10, 2006 | People are understandably fascinated by the lives of great artists. We scrutinize them for the formative experience or the light-bulb flare of inspiration -- whatever it is that pushes a human being beyond the rim of the merely good and results in a work for the ages. But in a way, the lives of the near great are just as illuminating. They're more like us in both their fears and their limitations, and they're often better at showing us where the threshold is by not quite managing to cross it. With them, you can see the precise point when nerve failed, perseverance ran out, vision faltered.
Take the case of James Tiptree Jr., who for a few years during the heyday of science fiction's "New Wave," in the 1960s, ... The reclusive Tiptree carried on involved, intimate correspondences with at least a dozen other writers and editors. They knew that their friend had gone on safari in Africa at the age of 6, learned to fly a plane and shoot a gun, worked for military intelligence during World War II and for the CIA afterward, published a short story in the New Yorker and obtained a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. What they didn't know was that he didn't exist, or not exactly. The person writing under the name James Tiptree Jr. was actually Alice Sheldon, a woman in her 50s, living with her husband in suburban McLean, Va.
[...] Yet "James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice Sheldon" offers a rich exploration of the attractions and perils of writerly personas, ... Alice Sheldon, as Phillips portrays her, was a woman who struggled all her days to do justice to her own knotted and painful experience of life; she came closest in Tiptree's fiction. But this biography conveys the pervasive sense of a gift thwarted on the verge of consummation, and Phillips' meditations on why that happened make this book exceptional.
What's particularly provocative about James Tiptree is that almost everything "he" told his epistolary friends about himself -- down to several passionate but doomed infatuations with unavailable women -- was essentially true. Sheldon lived an extraordinary life, and was a woman of immense charm, intelligence and talent. Yet somehow, she needed the mask, or rather the alter ego, of Tiptree to write her best fiction. When Tiptree's real identity was discovered ... nothing she wrote afterward "was ever as direct, honest and exciting as her work before she was exposed."
The most difficult and preoccupying relationship in Sheldon's life was with her mother, and it's not hard to see why. Mary Bradley was a popular author (she supported the family with her writing when her husband's business interests faltered during the Depression), a glamorous Chicago socialite and a fearless adventurer.[...]
In a letter, Sheldon described her mother as "a kind of explorer-heroine, highly literate (Oxford & Heidelberg), yet very feminine whatever that is. You help her through doors -- and then find out she can hike 45 miles up a mountain carrying her rifle and yours. And repeat the next day. And joke. And dazzling looks ... I am still approached by doddering old wrecks, extinguished Scandinavian savants and what have you who want to tell me about Mother as a young woman."
[Hell, I want to BE Sheldon's mother. Mary Bradley sounds simply wonderful.]
... Sheldon would spend most of her 72 years trying to figure out how to be a woman. A chief obstacle was her own mother's manifest success at doing whatever she wanted while remaining "feminine whatever that is." Sheldon, who accomplished enough in her time to make the child of a more ordinary mom feel exceptional, wrote that her mother "didn't provide a model for me, she provided an impossibility."
Sheldon and her mother were very much alike -- but not exactly ... As a stylish debutante, she was photographed by admiring society journalists. Then she eloped with a bad-boy poet to live the boho life of a painter in 1930s California. Six stormy years of marriage ended in divorce, whereupon Sheldon joined the Army as one of the first WACs. She got into the burgeoning intelligence field known as photointerpretation (studying aerial reconnaissance photographs for enemy installations and activity). Stationed in Paris, she challenged an Army colonel to a game of chess, played blindfolded, beat him and shortly thereafter married him.
... Alice returned to the U.S. and the couple spent a few quiet years running (of all things) a chicken hatchery in New Jersey. In the 1950s, they moved to Washington to work for the CIA. Ting ranked high enough to sit in on National Security Council meetings with the president, but Alice soon got tired of photointerpretation and went back to school to study clinical psychology. She eventually earned her Ph.D., studying the effect of novelty on lab rats, and struck up a lifelong correspondence with the great psychologist Rudolf Arnheim.
Sheldon had loved pulp science fiction... but didn't make a concerted attempt to write it until she was past 50, when research psychology was turning out to be as hard to stick to as anything else she'd tried. She picked the name James Tiptree as a lark, inspired by a jar of Tiptree jam in a supermarket...
This new s.f., Phillips writes, aimed for "real characters, atmosphere, social criticism, style" at a time -- the 1960s -- when speculation about social change was in the air. Tiptree's first important story, "The Last Flight of Dr. Ain," coolly recounts a multistop international journey by a doctor who is in love with a mystical female vision of Earth. It gradually becomes clear that he's intentionally spreading a lethal influenza virus as he goes, wiping out the human race to save the planet.
Tiptree's stories fused themes of sex, death and alienation in ways that many of his readers hadn't encountered before. "I read the first two sentences and felt like I'd fallen off a high tower," one critic wrote. Tiptree's fiction gained a following, and the persona blossomed as Sheldon began regularly exchanging letters with such innovative s.f. writers as Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, Harlan Ellison and firebrand feminist Joanna Russ. Sheldon was a charismatic correspondent. (Under her own name she wrote fan letters to mainstream writers like Tom Wolfe and Italo Calvino; Calvino was so impressed he wrote back asking to see her stories, but she never responded.) Those who exchanged letters with Tiptree felt they really knew him, and both Russ and Le Guin have confessed to being more than a little in love with him. "Tiptree was a man designed by a woman," Phillips writes, "and that made him as appealing as any Darcy or Heathcliff."
Yet when the truth about Tiptree was finally revealed, Sheldon didn't feel liberated. Her writer and editor friends were overwhelmingly supportive and many were intrigued by Tiptree's true gender. But despite freeing herself from a deception that had become unwieldy, creatively, Sheldon felt enervated and wary; she'd interpret the slightest friction in any interaction with editors and publishers as a sign of her demotion in status from male to female.
Sheldon wrote in her journal of Tiptree, "I had through him all the power and prestige of masculinity, I was -- though an aging intellectual -- of those who own the world. How I loathe being a woman ... Tiptree's 'death' has made me face ... my self-hate as a woman."
Sheldon's distaste for her gender wasn't consistent. She was an enthusiastic supporter of second-wave feminism who joined NOW and subscribed to Ms. Magazine from the outset. She started and abandoned several sympathetic treatises on the dilemma of women, especially those women with "atypical" ambitions and desires.
Still, Phillips believes that Sheldon never shook off the ill effects of a youth spent trying to live up to her parents' expectations and her mother's example. In school, 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 ... Instead, she cared about appearances, practiced femininity and flirtation, and got addicted to the rewards for being a pretty girl." The result was a woman of tremendous charm who felt exhausted by the company of other people, even those she liked. Every interaction was a life-sapping performance.
Phillips suggests that if Sheldon had been able to accept those parts of herself that defied her parents' image of a good girl -- homosexual desires, anger and grief -- she might have been able to integrate Tiptree into Alice and sustain a brilliant career as an author without resorting to disguises.
Sheldon also suffered from some more commonplace creative problems. Throughout her life, she rushed into a profession -- painting, the military, clinical psychology, writing -- with idealistic, grandiose notions of how things ought to be done. Inevitably, she was stymied by the inglorious practicalities. She worshiped Mexican muralist José Orozco, only to be disappointed, upon meeting him in Mexico City, when she learned that he was painting a rich woman's portrait for the money. Her hopes for finding a utopia of female empowerment in the WAC were dashed when the women insisted on behaving like the imperfect human beings they were. She refused to accommodate the realities of academic life -- department budgets, grantsmanship -- and thereby quashed her chances at a real career in science.
Sheldon's struggles remind me of a famous conversation between the minor British writer Stephen Spender and the great poet T.S. Eliot. The young Spender told Eliot that he had always wanted to be a poet. Eliot's reply was that he'd never understood this thing of wanting "to be a poet"; all he understood was having some poems you wanted to write.
When what you really want is to write some poems, you don't let the ultimately ancillary issues of how a poet should live or whether you're an exceptional talent get in the way. Often, the difference between a minor writer and a great poet is a matter of insufficient -- or, rather, misplaced -- commitment.
With Sheldon, the nagging problem of her identity, who she wanted to be -- a genius, an artist, a scientist, a writer -- kept interfering with the things she wanted to do. By creating the persona of James Tiptree Jr., she was temporarily able to finesse the block. In time, though, the puzzle of identity intruded again, as this new imaginary self sucked up more and more of her time and energy. (Ellison, complaining that Tiptree wasn't producing a promised novel, insisted that all that letter writing was the cause.) If she'd managed to solve her identity dilemma, she might have, as Phillips suggests, figured out how to write about a girl growing up into a "whole woman." On the other hand, if she had cared more deeply, obsessively and passionately about any one of the half-dozen types of work she tried in her life, she might have looked up from it one day to find that the whole woman had arrived unbidden.