“The Fourth State of Matter” by Jo Ann Beard (1996)

December 5, 2012 | Posted in Essays in America |

Jo Ann Beard, photographed by Jennifer May

Jo Ann Beard’s personal and creative non-fiction and fiction essays and novels place her as prominent contemporary American literary figure. She is known for her style of artistically merging fiction with non-fiction to create stories that fall somewhere between the two, while always and subtly signaling the reader about which is which.

Beard rose to literary fame with the publication of “The Fourth State of Matter,” a creative non-fiction essay about the 1991 massacre at The University of Iowa, in The New Yorker, 1996.

She is the author of a collection of personal essays called The Boys of My Youth, and a novel entitled In Zanesville. Her works have appeared in many publications, including the Iowa Review, Best American Essays, O magazine, Story, and Tin House.

In 1997, Beard was a recipient of the prestigious Whiting Writer’s Award, ten of which are given annually to up-and-coming writers of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and plays. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the New York Foundation for the Arts. Beard teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.

Essay’s Form

Beard begins “The Fourth State of Matter” by introducing her dog’s poor health, her failing relationship with her “vanished husband,” the squirrels that live in her spare bedroom, and, most notably, the friendship she shares with her co-worker, Chris.

The first page of “The Fourth State of Matter” as it appeared in The New Yorker
(source: scanned from The New Yorker, June 24 & July 1, 1996)

Though at first glance the essay appears to be fairly disjunctive, it eventually becomes apparent that there are only a few common threads that weave together a cohesive story. Throughout the beginning of the piece, Beard’s writing is at once moving and hilarious. Her dialogue and word-choice make the story interesting, relatable, and funny.

The end of the piece focuses on what Beard had only gently alluded to throughout the beginning: the shooting at

The University of Iowa which resulted in the death of several of her co-workers, including Chris. The warmth and personality of the first half of the story are nowhere to be found in Beard’s description of the massacre, and in this way the form of the story mimics the content.She concludes the essay by reverting to her original narrative of her dog’s late night trips outside, which provide a setting for her to reflect on her beautiful friendship with Chris.


(Online version of “The Fourth State of Matter”)

Immediate Context

On the afternoon of November 1, 1991, a former graduate student at the University of Iowa shot and killed six people, including himself, and critically wounded a seventh. Gang Lu, a native of the People’s Republic of China, had recently earned his PhD in physics and was completing some laboratory-based work.

Beard’s late-friend and co-worker, Chistoph Goertz, Physics Today, October 1992

Lu was motivated to commit the crimes against the university and staff because his doctoral dissertation was passed over for a prestigious academic award. The award was given to his classmate, Linhua Shan, who subsequently became one of the victims of Lu’s on-campus killing spree.

Gang Lu’s other victims included Dwight Nicholson, Robert Alan Smith, T. Anne Cleary, Miya Rodolfo-Sioson (the lone survivor), and Christoph “Chris” Goertz. Goertz and Beard co-edited a monthly space-physics journal together and were close friends.

“The Fourth State of Matter” first appeared in the June 24/July 1, 1996 “Special Fiction” issue of The New Yorker. Founded in 1925, the weekly magazine was already a well-established publisher of commentary, cartoons, news, reviews, creative writing (both fiction and non-fiction), etc. Beard’s story was given the header of “Personal History” on the table of contents, beginning on page 80 of the issue. A few small drawings accompanied the text.

Subsequent Appearances

 Jo Ann Beard’s first book was published in 1998. The Boys of My Youth is a collection of thirteen autobiographical essays, “The Fourth State of Matter” among them. Beard was already well-known in the literary realm after the success of her publication in The New Yorker and her receipt of a Whiting Writers’ Award, and the book was immediately well received. The hardcover edition of The Boys of My Youth sold out of its first printing before it was even published. According to the back-cover, the essays represent “moments of childhood epiphany as well as the cataclysms of adult life: betrayal, divorce, death.”

“The Fourth State of Matter” has also been anthologized in collections such as The Best American Essays and The Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: Work From 1970 to the Present, where it is the first essay in the book.

The cover of the issue of The New Yorker that Beard’s story originally appeared in (source: scanned from The New Yorker, June 24 & July 1, 1996)


Beard, Jo Ann. The Boys of My Youth. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1998. Print.

Marriot, Michel. “Gunman in Iowa Wrote of Plans In Five Letters.” The New York Times 3 Nov. 1991. Web. 30 Nov. 2011.

The New Yorker. Web. 30 Nov. 2011.

von Arbin Ahlander, Astri. “Jo Ann Beard.” The Days of Yore. Web. 30 Nov. 2011.

Whiting Writers’ Awards. Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation. Web. 30 Nov. 2011.

Yelin, Amy. “A Conversation with Jo Ann Beard.” The Missouri Review 34.1 (2001): 134-135. Project Muse. 25 Apr. 2011. Web. 30 Nov. 2011.

Text and images: Amber Pepe.