The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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John Henley Oral History Interviews

Two life history interviews conducted by Chris Petersen.

December 22, 2014


“A Mother's Story/Building Powell's Books”  December 22, 2014  Location: Valley Library, Oregon State University.  Watch Video | Download Transcript (PDF)

In interview 1, Henley provides a detailed discussion of his parents' lives. He begins by describing his mother's upbringing in Washington state and her early interest in writing. He then relays his father's life history, with emphasis placed on his exploits as a spy during World War II.

Henley then returns to his mother's professional work, her association with members of the American Communist Party, and her commitment to the Oregon State Penitentiary for the Criminally Insane. Follow-up questions delve more deeply into the literary scene in New York during Elizabeth Henley's years of residence; an overview of the lives led by Elizabeth's siblings; and the communist milieu in which Elizabeth circulated during her time in Seattle. Henley likewise speaks, in-depth, on the environment that his mother faced during her years of incarceration and the impact that it made upon her following her release.

From there, Henley details his own roots in the book trade. He then describes the means by which his mother was released from the Oregon State Penitentiary, outlines the role that Mark Hatfield played in bringing this about, and shares his own personal memories of Hatfield. Henley also remarks on his mother's associations with Oregon poets Williams Stafford and Vi Gale, and touches upon her contacts with Bernard Malamud.

Next, Henley reflects on his mother's experiences as a faculty member at Oregon State, noting her strong facility for teaching, describing her creative process, and sharing his memories of her contacts with other faculty members and numerous members of the Oregon literary scene. In addition, Henley reflects on the culture of Corvallis during the 1960s and 1970s.

The remainder of the interview is devoted to Henley's years as a manager at Powell's Books. In this, he provides an overview of the biography of Walter Powell, describes the means by which he came to be employed by Powell, and traces the expansion of the store throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

“Days and Nights in Downtown Portland”  December 22, 2014  Location: Valley Library, Oregon State University.  Watch Video | Download Transcript (PDF)

Interview 2 is primarily devoted to a collection of stories mined from Henley's life as a book scout and retail bookseller in downtown Portland. These stories include recollections of a very valuable two-volume set of Das Kapital that had been inscribed by Vladimir Lenin, as well as Henley's interactions with Shakespeare Folios and rare editions of Erasmus' Utopia. Henley also shares humorous stories of interacting with customers at Powell's Books and Great Northwest bookstore, and comments on the ways in which Powell's Books has been perceived by the book-selling community in Portland.

Henley then details his experience of stumbling upon a Soviet spy house that he visited on a book appraising assignment, and likewise shares his memories of moving an entire bookstore from Cleveland, Ohio to Portland. From there, he describes the evening that he spent running the light show at a Led Zeppelin concert; notes a chance encounter that he had with Robert F. Kennedy; and outlines the history of an important early science fiction convention that was held in Oregon in the early 1950s.

As the interview nears its end, Henley comments on his interactions with writers Ursula LeGuin and Robert Sheckley, and sculptor Tom Hardy. The session concludes with notes on family, with particular emphasis placed on Henley's autistic son, Sean, and the family's heavy involvement in autism research and advocacy in Oregon.