Robert M. Pirsig, the philosopher and author of two books, including the bestseller Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values, died at his home in South Berwick, Me., on April 24. He was 88.
Born in Minneapolis to a University of Minnesota law professor, Pirsig's rough start to his college years led to his enlistment in the United States Army shortly after the end of World War II. He was stationed in Korea, where he was influenced by East Asian culture and philosophy; upon his return, he enrolled at UM and, after graduating in 1950 with a degree in philosophy, left for India.
In India, Pirsig traveled and studied Hindu philosophy at Benares Hindu University. He returned to UM to complete graduate studies in journalism, and worked for a time as a technical writer before a brief stint in academia.
In 1968, Pirsig took a motorcycle trip across the American West with his eldest son, Christopher. That trip formed the narrative core of his first book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which traced a father-son motorcycle trip and flashbacks to a period in which the author was diagnosed as schizophrenic.
After being rejected by 121 publishers, the book was finally accepted by William Morrow; it was released in 1974, and became a phenomenon and, according to William Morrow, is often described as one of the most influential books of popular philosophy.
“It lodges in the mind as few recent novels have,” George Steiner wrote in The New Yorker in 1974, “deepening the grip, compelling the landscape into unexpected planes of order and menace.... This is indeed a book about the art of motorcycle maintenance, about the cerebral concentration, about the scruple and delicacy of both hand and ear required to keep an engine musical and safe across heat or cold tarmac or red dust. It is a book about the diverse orders of relation—wasteful, obtuse, amateurish, peremptory, utilitarian, insightful—which connect modern man to his mechanical environment.”
Pirsig's second book, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals, was published in 1991. Pirsig spent 17 years working on the book, before it was released. During that time, he helped found the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center and continued to perform repairs in his home workshop as an amateur—but skilled—mechanic.
Pirsig was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a 1979 award from the the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He is survived by his wife, Wendy; his son, Ted, of Volcano, Hawaii; his daughter, Nell Peiken, and son-in-law, Matthew Peiken, of Middleton, Mass.; his grandson Lionel Pirsig and his wife, Kazue Yamada; and grandchildren Lily and Jasper Peiken. His son Christopher died in 1979.
A private memorial service will be held. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to be made to the academic institution or other charitable organization of one’s choice.