He is probably one of the best champions of the motorcycling culture, and now he is gone. Robert M Pirsig road into the sunset on April 24th. At the age of 88, his health was failing and he passed at his South Berwick, Maine home. He was a motorcyclist, an author and a father who changed the way many people thought about Zen, motorcycles, and the way we maintain those machines. Here’s a quick retrospective on this icon from the attorneys who ride.
When We Realized Maintaining a Motorcycle Was Zen
He grew up as a bright child with an IQ of 170 but a stammer that made life difficult. After flunking out of college, Robert Pirsig joined the Army and was stationed in Asia before the Korean War. While there, he picked up an interest in Zen Buddhism that followed him for the rest of his life. When he came back to the U.S., he returned to college, got bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism, and attended the University of Chicago to study philosophy. He also built a life and a family, having two sons and a daughter. These were the building blocks that led to Robert Pirsig writing “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”.
This book explores philosophy and the open road as the unnamed main character takes his 11-year-old son on a cross country motorcycle trip. They are joined by the father’s rather emotional friends, and as they ride from state to state, the main character begins to have revelations about life, quality and his past. This struck a chord with many people in the 1970s.
A culture of fans sprouted around the book when it was released in 1974. This was unexpected considering that 121 publishers rejected the book before William Morrow agreed to put it on shelves. Fans would go to visit Pirsig in mass, which eventually forced the author and his family into seclusion. After the wild success of the book, Pirsig would go on to write only one other book, “Lila: An Inquiry into Morals”.
Pirsig will always be remembered for “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” because it is a touchstone of the riding culture. Many feel that the narrator/main character of the book could not have experienced his essential journey of self-discovery without straddling and working on his classic motorcycle as he hunted for himself and a connection to his son out on the open road.