Romulus Linney lives on at ASU
by Kellen Moore
When Romulus Linney wrote, he often would hole up in a tight room, wrapped in solitude and surrounded by his eccentric collection of books selected from secondhand shops.
His older daughter, actress Laura Linney, said she remembers sitting on the floor outside as a child, listening to the playwright and novelist compose his works on a Smith Corona typewriter.
“I can remember it was a torrent of keys flying, and then there’d be silence, and then there would be a torrent and it would get very loud,” Linney said. “It was sort of a symphony unto itself.”
“He would sort of emerge from that room either elated and puffed up and full of life or depleted and exhausted and weary,” she said. “Whatever it was, it was a physical experience for him, never just a mental one.”
The result was a body of work that spanned several genres and more than 65 years. Much of that work was inspired by his childhood years spent in Boone, a place that family members said he often returned to find peace and simplicity.
Linney made his final trip to Boone in August 2010 just months before he died of lung cancer in January 2011 at age 80.
As a final indication of how much the town and Appalachian State University meant to him, he left to the university a massive collection of his correspondence, manuscripts, family photographs and awards to be housed in the Belk Library.
That collection will be officially unveiled in a dedication at 4 p.m. today at the library. ASU also is celebrating his life and work Thursday and today with a lineup of panel discussions, master classes and readings.
Several of Linney’s family members, including his widow, Laura Callanan, daughters Laura and Susan Linney, and his cousin Frank Coffey, wife Joyce Coffey and son Paul L. Coffey, spoke on campus Thursday about the man they knew so well.
Born in Philadelphia, Linney grew up in Boone and in Madison, Tenn. For a period during the Depression, his family moved back to the area to live with extended family in the large white house beside the Post Office on King Street.
Those ties to Appalachia created the setting for many of his works, including his first novel “Heathen Valley,” which told of an 19th century bishop’s struggles to win souls in Valle Crucis.
Now, as part of the collection, visitors can see his 1962 copy of “Heathen Valley,” complete with Linney’s handwritten notes made while adapting the work into a play.
A “bloodhound” for unique sources of information, Linney dreamed up his second novel, “Slowly, By Thy Hand Unfurled,” after a chance encounter with an old friend from Oberlin College, his alma mater.
His friend’s wife gave him a 19th-century diary that evening that inspired the work, one that brought him special pleasure as a writer.
“Of all of his creative experience, that was the time he felt most that some other force other than himself was channeling through him,” Callanan said.
While not all of his work earned positive critical acclaim, he did earn several honors and awards, including the Gold Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He also has a theater named in his honor that is home to the Signature Theatre Company, where he was the founding playwright-in-residence during the company’s first season in 1991.
Linney’s creative capability rubbed off on both his daughters. He often would “talk shop” with his older daughter, Laura, who has appeared in films including “The Truman Show” and “Mystic River,” along with several television series and Broadway productions.
His younger daughter, Susan, from his second marriage, also took to writing, albeit in a much different format than her father. She has worked as an editor for Redbook and Lucky magazines and currently writes about beauty and fashion.
His influence also was felt outside the family at Appalachian State University, where many of his plays were performed and where he received an honorary doctorate in 1995. He often would visit Boone to stop by the university’s library or drive down the mountain roads to the top of Howard’s Knob, Frank Coffey said.
On his final trip to Boone, Linney was conducting research for a novel that he never completed. The novel was to be called “Shedman,” the fictitious last name he often used to stand for the Linney family.
Now, students and visitors have an opportunity to examine firsthand the life and work of Linney through the ASU collection. Select pieces will be on display through the end of December on the Belk Library’s fourth floor. Other items are available for research from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday in the Dougherty Reading Room.
Linney’s family members agreed Thursday that placing the items in the care of ASU was a perfect fit.
“When he talked about the various areas of his growing up, you know, Boone was always sort of where the heart pumped the most,” Laura Linney said. “So it’s no surprise that he was in talks with all of what he held the most dear, which was his work, to come back here.”
ASU has planned a variety of events today to celebrate and honor the late Romulus Linney. Visit http://tinyurl.com/RomulusLinney to see the full schedule.