Saturday, September 02, 2006

James Tiptree Jr.

In addition to watching movies, I'm reading the new biography of James Tiptree Jr.

Tiptree belonged to the same generation as my mother and her sisters. All were bright, adventurous women born in the early part of the 20th century. They all lived through the Great Depression, World War Two and the postwar period of reaction; and all were less than satisfied with the traditional woman's role of housewife and helpmate.

(That role was always middle class. Farm wives and the women in families that owned small businesses always worked, as did many, many working class women. The stay-at-home Mom was a dream for most Americans through most of our history. Only the postwar prosperity, a strong union movement and the need to find jobs for the soldiers coming home made the dream real.)

Although Tiptree belonged to my mother's generation, she and I belonged to the same generation of women science fiction writers, who were first published in the late 60s and early 70s. She hit like a bomb, while it took me 20 years to be noticed. But we both faced the same environment, and we should have been dealing with the same problems.

I began reading the book in the hopes that it would illuminate my life and the lives of my mother and her sisters. The reviews I have read discuss Tiptree's life as an example of the lives of women writers (and women) in 20th century America.

All I can think is, thank heavens I am not Tiptree; and thank heavens my mother and her sisters led different lives. To me, Tiptree seems lonely and lost. My mother and her sisters had friends and one another and a strong set of political convictions that gave meaning to their lives. I grew up surrounded by matriarchs, who raised their children to hate prejudice, selfishness and ignorance and to love social justice, music and art. My aunt Molly was a lifelong political activist, who became the president of NOW in her 70s. The rest of the Yard sisters were less spectacular; and I think my mother regreted what she didn't do with her life. She probably should have been a college professor, but it was hard for a married woman with young children to get a job in the 1950s. Instead, she was a social worker, then a mother and the wife of the director of the Walker Art Center, then a social worker again.

More than anything, she loved books and literature. She didn't think she could be a writer. She believed she lacked creativity. But she encouraged me to write, and I believe her encouragement made me a writer.

Tiptree doesn't help me understand my relatives, and she doesn't help me understand my own life as a writer. I am an introvert, but never (I think) as lonely as she was, even when she was corresponding with everyone in the science fiction field. I remember envying the community that women science fiction writers had in the 1970s. I didn't belong to it and didn't know how to join. I also envied the success of other women science fiction writers.

But hitting like a bomb may not be entirely a good thing for an introvert who lacks self-confidence; and Sheldon's pen name may have been a problem, especially since she created a personality for Tiptree. Did Alice Sheldon ever believe her fame and friendships belonged to her, or did they always seem to belong to an imaginary man? I haven't finished the book so I don't have an answer to the question.

I suspect the life of a truly extraordinary -- and pretty darn odd -- person does not illuminate the lives of rest of us much. Or maybe Tiptree's life illuminates many other lives, just not the lives of people in my family.


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