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James Tiptree, Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Shelton, by Julie Phillips.

November 8, 2014

James Tiptree, Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Shelton, by Julie Phillips.  St. Martin’s Press (2006), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover, 480 pages.

A fascinating biography about a fascinating woman who created a male persona and became a leading writer of science fiction. An important book for anyone interested in issues of writing and gender.

Alice Shelton (1915-1987) overcame her frustrations at the limited opportunities for women to become the noted science fiction writer, James Tiptree, Jr. More than using a male pseudonym on her books, she established herself as a man through her fiction and her vast correspondence with other writers. Her stories tended to deal insightfully and sympathetically with women characters, but her prose and content seemed so convincingly male that Tiptree was compared to Hemingway. In writing Shelton’s biography, Julie Phillips argues that writing as a man provided a language for Shelton to express a side of herself that twentieth-century America forced her to repress. Although Shelton was anything but typical, her biography offers insight into how a bright woman struggled with the gender expectations still in place for many of us as we moved into previously male professions.

Julie Phillips has written the best kind of biography; one which offers insight and historical context but does not rely on psychological jargon or theory. Her writing is a delight to read. Part of Phillips’ success is her decision to let Shelton tell her own story. Shelton left extensive manuscripts and correspondence which Phillips supplemented with the writings of her mother and first husband as well extensive interviews. (Not footnoted, but extensively documented in the back of the book). Writing as Tiptree, Shelton described experiences and emotions from her childhood. Even before she became Tiptree, Shelton had written extensively using writing as a way to sort through the contradictions in her life. There are problems with assuming Shelton’s memories are accurate, of course, but Phillips provides the narrative of her life that she had composed for herself.

Shelton’s childhood set her apart from her peers. Her parents were quite wealthy, and she was a cherished and spoiled only child, more comfortable with adults than other children. Shelton was ambivalent toward her mother, a woman who had a career and some fame as a writer of popular fiction. While admiring her mother’s strength, Alice also felt smothered and erased by her. Also formative were the three long trips on which Alice accompanied her parents into unexplored parts of the Congo. As a six-year-old with long blond curls, Alice interacted with Africans who had never before seen a white person. Her fear and the alien-ness of what she experienced foreshadowed her later science fiction.

Leaving her parents’ shadow, Alice had difficulty finding a place and identity for herself. She experimented in several directions. In a desire for rebellion, she ran away and married a young writer whom she met when she was presented as a debutant. He was bright and sensitive, but both of them were too volatile and immature for the marriage to succeed. Alice worked for a time as a journalist before joining the Army WACs during World War II. She quickly became aware of the unequal treatment that women in the military received. Managing to become involved in the new specialty of the interpretation of photographs, she gained skills to do similar work for the group that would emerge as the CIA after the war. More importantly, she met and married her military boss, an older man who provided her with stability, companionship, and love. The marriage was sometimes stormy, presenting Alice with the classic conflicts for women between serving another and developing an identity for herself. Gradually, however, they developed a loving partnership.

Searching for a place for herself, Shelton earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, writing her dissertation on the perception of light. On finishing it, she playfully composed some short stories which she sent to a science fiction publisher signing them as James Tiptree. These stories launched her career as an unusually perseptive science fiction writer. In addition to the stories she wrote, she corresponded with others in the close science fiction network of authors and readers. Phillips discusses the Tiptree stories in detail, establishing how their themes were linked to Shelton’s life.

Phillips clearly sees Tiptree as more than a male name which helped Shelton’s stories get published and read. She shows how writing science fiction gave her subject the distance to explore her own contradictions and pain.  As Tiptree, Shelton could put down her perfectionism and play, protected by her secrecy from any negative responses. Phillips sums up what Tiptree meant to her.

Like all interesting people, Ali had many sides or selves, and Tiptree gave her more room to be those selves: worldly, analytical, independent, bloodthirsty, and funny. He let her play, make jokes, or, on a bad day, annihilate the human race.  He gave her a space to love women (though not always to like them).  Sometimes he said things she didn’t have words for, in the days when no one wrote honestly about women’s experience.

Shelton was always ambivalent about women. She wanted to like them, but she was often disappointed with them. They seemed lack her spirit and drive. They were too willing to accept their society’s definition of them as weak and passive. Shelton expressed her sexual attraction to other women and had some brief lesbian affairs.  As elsewhere, however, her attraction ebbed when she engaged with actual women, and she was never comfortable with being a lesbian.  Her correspondence as Tiptree with writers Ursula Le Guin and Joanna Russ, are rich in their discussion of womanhood and writing. Russ, in particular, tried to set Tiptree straight on some of his ideas about women.

As Tiptree, Shelton maintained her secret identity for almost a decade, before it was accidentally revealed in 1976, about the same time that feminists were raising questions about gender. Although she continued to write and correspond with friends as a woman, her writing never regained the excellence and excitement it had previously revealed. Her efforts to write a novel were unsuccessful, she and her husband were aging, and she became increasingly depressed. In 1987, she committed suicide.

I am a couple of decades younger than Shelton, and my life has been radically different than hers. Yet as I read Phillip’s account, I was surprisingly moved by how my own sense of myself and my world echoed hers. I, too, was a pampered only child growing up with high parental expectations and no idea how, as a woman, I could meet them. I shared her sense of both vulnerability and adventure. Reading about Shelton proved to be a way for me to re-examine my own path through the gender maze of the mid-twentieth century. I still see remnants of that ideology thriving around me, but I don’t know if young women today will be moved as deeply as I have been by Shelton’s story.

This is a particularly insightful biography that I strongly recommend to everyone, especially those interested in gender and writing.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 11, 2014 8:02 am

    I have this to read but have not yet got around to it. Your wonderful review reminds me that I really must take it down from the shelf. Such a fascinating life.

  2. November 13, 2014 10:49 am

    I think you would enjoy how well Phillips has written her biography. I’m curious about whether or not Shelton’s life echoes your in academia as I felt it did mine. Or maybe mine response is generational.

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