Authors: Robert M. Pirsig

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American memoirist and philosopher

September 6, 1928

Minneapolis, Minnesota

April 24, 2017

South Berwick, Maine

Biography

Robert Maynard Pirsig’s influential Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is one of the most well known American books of the late twentieth century. Pirsig was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on September 6, 1928, the son of Maynard Ernest Pirsig and Harriet Marie Sjobeck. Pirsig’s IQ of 170 did not guarantee him an easy life. A student of Eastern philosophy, he worked as an operator of a gambling table in Reno, a teacher of writing at the University of Montana and the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a freelance writer and editor of technical publications. {$I[AN]9810000924} {$I[A]Pirsig, Robert M.} {$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Pirsig, Robert M.} {$I[tim]1928;Pirsig, Robert M.}

Robert M. Pirsig.

By Ian Glendinning, CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/), via Wikimedia Commons

Pirsig served with the United States Army from 1946 to 1948. He received both his B.A. and his M.A. from the University of Minnesota. On May 10, 1954, he married Nancy Ann James. They had two children. Pirsig and his wife were divorced in August of 1978. Their son Chris, who is featured prominently in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, died of a knife wound on November 17, 1979.

Pirsig was a member of the Society of Technical Communicators. He served as secretary of the Minnesota chapter from 1970 to 1971 and as treasurer from 1971 to 1972. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1974 and received an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1979.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is set during a cross-country motorcycle trip taken by Pirsig, his son Chris, and two friends. The book took Pirsig more than two years to write. While he recounts a physical journey, Pirsig is also on a spiritual quest to confront the part of himself that had been buried as a result of his undergoing electroshock therapy. This alternate personality is christened “Phaedrus” in honor of one of Socrates’ debating opponents. Throughout the book, Pirsig “discovers” memories that disturb him but that he must probe nonetheless. He also tries to understand Chris, who exhibits some early signs of mental illness. On yet another level, the work is what Pirsig called “an inquiry into values,” an attempt to employ philosophical models to reconcile the classical and the romantic, art and technology.

When Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was first published in 1974, it was hailed as a “great American novel” and compared with such works as Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851). Not fictional per se, the book is difficult to categorize, as it seems to cross the genre divisions of memoir, philosophical discourse, and travel sketch. After its initial positive reception, there was a critical backlash involving allegations of inaccuracies in Pirsig’s representation of Oriental philosophy. Nevertheless, the book holds an important place in American letters. It affected an entire generation of readers, who were drawn to its suggestion of an alternative to material success—indeed, its expansion of the meaning of “success.”

Readers familiar with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance will feel comfortable reading his second book, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals. The style and tone are similar, the author tracing his philosophical anxieties while on a journey, this time by riverboat toward the ocean. The book hinges on the relative value of a woman whom Pirsig befriends as a kind of barroom challenge. At the heart of the book is an unheralded appointment Pirsig has with Robert Redford to discuss the film rights to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The story concludes with a scene that raises the question of the narrator’s sanity yet suggests union and rebirth.

Author Works Nonfiction: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, 1974 (autobiography) Lila: An Inquiry into Morals, 1991 Bibliography DiSanto, Ronald L., and Thomas J. Steele. Guidebook to “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” New York: Quill, 1990. A useful guide to the background to and symbolism of Pirsig’s book. Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. “Rhetoric and the Madness of Philosophy in Plato and Pirsig.” Contemporary Literature 29 (Spring, 1988). An in-depth reading of the use of madness in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Hayles, N. Katherine. “Drawn to the Web: The Quality of Rhetoric in Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” In The Cosmic Web: Scientific Field Models and Literary Strategies in the Twentieth Century. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984. Provides a complete analysis of Pirsig’s work, useful biographical information, and an extensive bibliography. Lee, Ronald J. “Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: The Fusion of Form and Content.” Western American Literature 14 (Fall, 1979). Provides an interesting analysis of the relation of the form of the book to its content. Raymond, Michael. “Generic Schizophrenia in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” CEA Critic 43 (March, 1981). An in-depth reading of the use of madness in the work. Roding, Richard H. “Irony and Earnestness in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 22 (1980). Examines the motives of the book’s main characters and the radical abstraction of the authorial point of view. Vitello, Paul. “Robert M. Pirsig, Author of ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,’ Dies at 88.” The New York Times, 24 Apr. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/04/24/books/robert-pirsig-dead-wrote-zen-and-the-art-of-motorcycle-maintenance.html. Accessed 2 Aug. 2017. Pirsig’s obituary.

Categories: Authors