Monday, February 23, 2015

Crossing Genres: Beard, Ruden, and “Greenhorn”

Posted By on Mon, Feb 23, 2015 at 9:11 AM

If you’ve never read "The Fourth State of Matter," read it right now or real soon. If it’s been years since you read it (reprinted in the collection The Boys of My Youth, 1999), read it again. It’s must-read, and it’s been impressing writers and readers for nearly 20 years.

"The Fourth State of Matter" is by Jo Ann Beard, and, as Amy Day Wilkinson reminded us last year, it was first published in The New Yorker’s June 24, 1996, issue — the magazine’s fiction issue. But Beard’s piece isn’t fiction. It’s based on real life, Beard’s life, which is why the magazine headed it “Personal History.” The New Yorker ran it because of its high artistry, and you’re welcome to argue over genres all you want.

On Wednesday, February 25th, welcome to Memphis Jo Ann Beard, who teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College. She’ll be guest of the University of Memphis’ River City Writers Series and reading from her work on the third floor of the school’s University Center at 8 p.m. that night. The next morning, at 10:30 a.m., Beard will be interviewed in Room 456 of Patterson Hall. Both events are free and open to the public.

But back to that question of categories … Wilkinson wrote that Beard works “between genres.” Wilkinson also reminded us that the novel In Zanesville (2011), Beard’s second book, also skirted categories: It began as a young-adult novel, but it was published as adult fiction. And that’s not all Wilkinson filled us in on. Beard studied painting as an undergraduate, then she switched to writing. But she's also worked as a secretary, then graduated, according to Beard, to “glorified secretary.” Beard wasn't done yet. Again according to Beard in an interview, also cited by Wilkinson: “For a while in my early forties I had a job stapling. It was actually fun but then it started bothering my back.”

Something bothered Beard too about the writing life at Yaddo, the writers’ retreat in Saratoga Springs. As the essay by Beard titled “The Boys of My Youth” tells it (and as Beard told a friend at the time): “I hate it here; why did I come here? All there is to do is write.”

Wilkinson was right to point out that passage as a good example of Beard’s dry wit. Just as Wilkinson was right to call The Boys of My Youth a “genre-defining collection.” Or should that read “genre-defying”? Better to take the simpler path, as writer and critic Francine Prose did when she summed up In Zanesville in two words: "must-read."

For more information on Jo Ann Beard this week at the University of Memphis and for writer Liz Robbins’ upcoming visit in April, go here or contact the director of the River City Writers Series, Sonja Livingston, at

. . .

Talk about genres … On the same night Jo Ann Beard is reading at the U of M, Sarah Ruden is at Rhodes to deliver the school’s annual Batey Lecture, named after Rhodes’ longtime New Testament scholar Richard Batey.

Ruden, currently a visiting scholar at Brown University, will be delivering a talk titled “Divine Comedy, Earlier Than You Think: Vergil, Augustine, the Bible” on Wednesday at 7 p.m. in Hardie Auditorium of Palmer Hall. But Ruden isn’t only a respected translator of Greek and Roman classics. She’s an author, essayist, and award-winning poet in her own right, which helps explain the high praise Ruden received for her version of Vergil’s Aeneid (2008). Historian, journalist, and writer on religion Garry Wills put that praise in more than two words: “the first translation since Dryden’s that can be read as a great English poem in itself.”

For more information about Sarah Ruden at Rhodes on Wednesday night, go here or contact Patrick Gray of the school’s Department of Religious Studies at

. . .

One religion, Judaism, is at the root of Greenhorn … and not only Judaism but dark remnants of the Holocaust. The story, set mostly in a postwar New York City yeshiva, is an important lesson in friendship as well, and it was told in a book for young readers called Greenhorn in 2012 by native Memphian Anna Olswanger. Olswanger based Greenhorn on the true tale told by Rafael Grossman, rabbi emeritus of Baron Hirsch Congregation in Memphis. And now Greenhorn is a short film, co-produced by Olswanger and written for the screen and directed by Tom Whitus.

The film premiered in New York last October at the Museum of Tolerance, thanks to another Memphian, Jane Fraser of the Stuttering Foundation. Greenhorn is having its local premiere when it screens this week during the second annual Morris and Mollye Fogelman International Jewish Film Festival.

Greenhorn will be shown, along with five other movies, as part of the short-film competition on Thursday, February 26th, beginning at 7:30 p.m. inside the Belz Theater at the Memphis Jewish Community Center (6560 Poplar). Tickets are $7; $5 for MJCC members.

For more information on the entire film festival, which is running now and continues through March 1st, go here. Tickets can purchased online at; by calling the MJCC at 901-761-0810; or by visiting the center. For any other questions, contact Amy Israel, the MJCC’s director of Cultural Arts and Judaic Enrichment, at 901-761-0810 or •

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