At first glance, the classic science-fiction authors James Tiptree Jr. and Joanna Russ might not seem to have much in common. Behavioral psychologist Alice Bradley Sheldon began writing under “James Tiptree Jr.” in 1968, when she was in her fifties. She used the fictional male name and real knowledge of science and the military to infiltrate male-dominated science-fiction magazines. Russ, two decades younger, was an outspoken radical feminist, English professor, and critic. And yet, as Nicole Nyhan writes, the two writers exchanged hundreds of letters over fifteen years. Nyhan provides the introduction to a selection of writing from Tiptree’s side of the correspondence.
In her letters to Russ—as in voluminous correspondence with other writers, including Ursula K. Le Guin and Vonda N. McIntyre—Tiptree maintained her male persona. Their connection began in 1972, when Tiptree wrote a self-deprecating letter of praise to Russ, who had just published some of her first stories. “Consider this a simple fan-ism requiring no response,” Tiptree writes. “I have a bad habit of writing mash notes when writing moves me and the last thing I want is to take up the recipient’s writing time.”
Tiptree’s letters appear to come from a male supporter of the era’s feminist movement. A 1973 letter praises the “scent of a new just anger” in Russ’s work. Tiptree also critically evaluates “his” own work in terms of its limited representation of women and mentions a soon-to-be-published story with a feminist theme—“The Women Men Don’t See.” “Maybe that’s better—or maybe it’ll just be embarrassing, like whites writing about blacks,” Tiptree writes. “We all know how that works out.”
After numerous lengthy letters comes one dated December 4, 1976, that opens, “To say that this is a hard letter to write would be the understatement of some time.” Tiptree’s real identity was in the process of leaking, so Sheldon fessed up. “It didn’t feel evil,” she insists. “It was just a prank that dreamed its way into reality. I think you were beginning to ‘see through,’ too.”
Nyhan writes that Russ took the revelation in stride. In fact, Russ later told Sheldon that despite being a lesbian, she had been “madly in love” with Tiptree “and sensed uneasily that this was odd.” Soon, the subject of their correspondence turned to sex and romance. Sheldon, in her second marriage to a man, wrote that she’d had women flirt with her but “hadn’t a clue how to pick them up. Still don’t really. I guess you could call me a frustrated gay. God knows, the scene with men was mostly pure havoc.”
Russ replied with a letter that included the lines “Consider yourself well and truly propositioned.… Are you ready to have mad adventures in your waning years?”
Nyhan writes, “Sheldon, petrified, replied with only a postcard.”
The two never met in person, but they continued to write in frank, emotional terms, discussing depression and personal struggles. Their letters continued until Sheldon’s death in 1987.