John J. Dorfner is the author of two books on Jack Kerouac, Kerouac: Visions of Lowell and Kerouac: Visions of Rocky Mount. In them, he delves into Kerouac’s life in Lowell, Massachusetts, and in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.
Dorfner recently was responsible for getting Kerouac inducted into the Rocky Mount Hall of Fame. We did an interview via email. Here’s how it went:
D.E.: John, you were instrumental in getting Jack Kerouac inducted into the Rocky Mount, N.C. Hall of Fame. How did that come about?
J.D.: It was kind of a surprise to finally hear that Kerouac was accepted into the Twin County Hall of Fame. I was in touch with the folks at the Hall of Fame for about 5 years trying to get him accepted…I sent info and talked to them a lot about Kerouac in North Carolina. They were always asking about his times in Rocky Mount during the 1950’s and his stay in Big Easonburg Woods and all.
D.E.: Was it a big surprise to hear that they were going to do it?
J.D.: When the committee called to tell me that was finally accepted into the Hall of Fame I was a little surprised that it was really going to happen for Kerouac and how happy and amazed he would have been about the whole affair. He loved Rocky Mount, North Carolina and the South very much. No doubting that.
D.E.: Tell us about your experience at the induction ceremony. What was that like?
J.D.: The induction ceremony was surreal, to say the least. I’ve never spoken to a room full of people, more or less over 300 of Rocky Mount’s finest citizens. Jack was inducted into the Hall of Fame along with some of the finest citizens of Rocky Mount. Doctors, sports figures, musicians, business men, and women…these figures, along with Kerouac are very well respected.
At first, I was told I would not be getting a copy of Jack’s portrait that would hang in the museum. They only give them to family. But after I gave my little speech concerning Kerouac’s years in Rocky Mount and thanking the committee for inducted Jack Kerouac…to my surprise I was given one. My last words were “This is for you, Jack,” and I pointed to Kerouac’s beautiful portrait hanging behind me that was just uncovered from the black cloth that covered all the portraits. The committee uncovered each portrait after a person spoke concerning the induction of each member being inducted. The MC said “John…we had to give you one!”
I got back to my table where I set with my wife, one of my daughters and a good friend who had flown out from Cali to attend the affair with me. As I set down at our table I realized that my book, Kerouac: Visions of Rocky Mount, was in the portrait, hanging over Kerouac’s left shoulder, underneath 1950s editions of On the Road. I looked down at Kerouac and saw those deep blue eyes looking straight into mine…as if to say “John…this is for you.” It was a very moving experience.
D.E.: Let’s backtrack a little bit. How did you first get interested in Kerouac?
J.D.: I first became aware of Kerouac while working for a book distributor out in Portland Oregon in 1974. This was after my own hitch in the Navy. When I got out of the Navy I was working the graveyard shift at IBM in Kingston New York. A friend of mine was going out to Colorado and I decided to go along for the ride. We stopped in Woodward Oklahoma to visit another friend that hand landed there with kids he met in Oregon, picking fruit. The young man who I rode out to Oklahoma with decided to go back to New York rather quickly…but I stayed on in Oklahoma…working the winter of 1972 working for a brick mason and bucking hay. In March of 1973, we rolled down to Mardi Gras in our 1950 Chevy. Man, I loved that car…beautiful ride. We stayed for about 5 days. I ran into some trouble that I won’t get into but I was glad when we climbed back into the Chevy and drove back to Woodward with some friends of my Woodward crew that we met at Mardi Gras…they all had been friends in Oregon, picking fruit. After months in Oklahoma, I was ready to move on. Me and another guy and girl hitched out of Woodward and headed to California. The young lady lived in Berkeley…so off we went…hitching rides the best way we knew how. Sometimes the young lady would stand out by the ride while I and another young man hide in the bushes. That’s the way it worked back then.
I stayed in Berkeley for a few months then hitched up to Eugene, where she was enrolling in school…from there I hitched up to Portland, Oregon. I visited a family that was our neighbors back in Stone Ridge, some 15 years earlier. To make a long story short…the folks got me a job with a book distributor in Portland and I stayed on…Oregon is a beautiful place. The book distributor hired a young man from Ohio…who had worked at a state library. He worked in the Approval Dept with me. I’ll never forget the day he worked into my office…”Here is it! the bible!” I had no idea what he was talking about. “You hitched all over the country and have never heard of Jack Kerouac???” My friend was amazed. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, man!” Of course, only after a few pages into Charters’ Kerouac I knew what my friend was talking about. It changed my life, to say the least.
D.E.: How did you come to write books about his life?
J.D.: After reading all of the Kerouac books I could find at the book stores and the Out of Print Dept. at the book distributor, I was pretty much hooked into Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs. But I had no idea how these 3 men would change my life.
My father passed away in April of 1976. I went back to New York in the spring after his death. During the summer I drove up to LOWELL to check it out. I had to go because I’ve read so much about Kerouac’s world and everything I could find about the man. As soon as I arrived in Lowell with my camera, I knew I’d write my Lowell book. It was all there just as Jack described…exactly. I even found TEXTILE LUNCH with the big sign hanging over the front door. It was like Disney World to me. It was like a dream a long time passed as Kerouac says. I fell in love with Lowell that first day…within the first few hours. Much different today than when I first traveled to Lowell. people looked at me like I was crazy when I started talking about Jack Kerouac.
D.E.:Do you have favorite Kerouac books? What about the other Beats?
J.D.: My favorite Kerouac is Dr. Sax…after that I’ve have to say Visions of Cody…then Visions of Gerard, On the Road, and The Dharma Bums… The real meat of Dharma Bums is of course the parts of the book where Kerouac writes about Big Easonburg Woods and Rocky Mount.
Mexico City Blues is the first Kerouac book I read after reading Charters’ Kerouac. William S. Burroughs, to me, is the best of all the Beat writers…actually probably my favorite writer. Ginsberg…love him. But Burroughs, in life and times, his writing…so interesting to me. I have quite an unbelievable book collection…many signed Burroughs and Ginsberg…many first editions of all 3 Beat writers…postcards, letters, photographs…signed to me. Very lucky…
D.E.: What (Beat or otherwise) are you reading right now?
J.D.: Right now I’m reading everything else I can find ‘on’ Burroughs again and ordering everything I don’t have. I re-read all the novels recently…and believe you me it has given me the weirdest dreams, like Kerouac has said. Burroughs is an acquired taste. You have to be able to get beyond some of the subject matter to really fall head over heels for his writing. But to me, there is no second…. Henry Miller comes closest…I really like Hunter S. Thompson. Hell’s Angels was one of the only books I read in High School…pretty much the only one…that and Of Mice and Men and we had to read that. To this day…Of Mice and Men is one of my favorite books.
D.E.: What creative endeavors are you currently working on?
J.D.: At the moment I’m working on some of my own writing… I’m writing about my life on the highways of America… I started hitch hiking before I ever heard of Kerouac…hitched across the country after a short hitch in the Navy. So many stories…so many friends lost and found along the road. Also writing more of my Milkman’s Matinee…the novel I wrote about my father and I on his milk truck in upstate New York in the early 1960’s. Don’t think I’ll ever really finish that book. Don’t want to.