Robert M. Pirsig, who inspired generations to road trip across America with his “novelistic autobigraphy,” Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, died Monday at the age of 88.
His publisher William Morrow & Company said in a statement that Pirsig died at his home in South Berwick, Maine, “after a period of failing health.”
Pirsig wrote just two books: Zen (subtitled “An Inquiry Into Values”) and Lila: An Inquiry into Morals.
Zen was published in 1974, after being rejected by 121 publishing houses. “The book is brilliant beyond belief,” wrote Morrow editor James Landis before publication. “It is probably a work of genius and will, I’ll wager, attain classic status.”
Indeed, the book quickly became a best-seller, and has proved enduring as a work of popular philosophy. A 1968 motorcycle trip across the West with his son Christopher was his inspiration.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt reviewed Zen for The New York Times in 1974. “[H]owever impressive are the seductive powers with which Mr. Pirsig engages us in his motorcycle trip, they are nothing compared to the skill with which he interests us in his philosophic trip,” he wrote. “Mr. Pirsig may sometimes appear to be a greener‐America proselytizer, with his beard and his motorcycle tripping and his talk about learning to love technology. But when he comes to grips with the hard philosophical conundrums raised by the 1960’s, he can be electrifying.”
Robert M. Pirsig, Author of ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,’ Dies at 88 ~ NYT
CreditWilliam Morrow & Company
“There is such a thing as a zeitgeist, and I believe the book was popular because there were a lot of people who wanted a reconciliation — even if they didn’t know what they were looking for,” Mr. Gitlin said in 2013 in an interview for this obituary. “Pirsig provided a kind of soft landing from the euphoric stratosphere of the late ’60s into the real world of adult life.”
Mr. Pirsig’s plunge into the grand philosophical questions of Western culture remained near the top of the best-seller lists for a decade and helped define the post-hippie 1970s landscape as resoundingly, some critics have said, as Carlos Castaneda’s “The Teachings of Don Juan” helped define the 1960s.
Where “Don Juan” pursued enlightenment in hallucinogenic experience, “Zen” argued for its equal availability in the brain-racking rigors of Reason with a capital R. Years after its publication, it continues to be invoked by famous people when asked to name a book that affected them most deeply — among them the former professional basketball player Phil Jackson, the actors William Shatner and Tim Allen, and the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, a Nobel laureate.