Robert M. Pirsig, the author of philosophical novel “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” has died. He was 88.
Pirsig passed away at his home in South Berwick, Maine, on Monday, The New York Times reported.
His publisher, William Morrow, confirmed his death, saying the writer’s health had been failing.
Originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, Pirsig was a college writing instructor and freelance technical writer when he penned his first book, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values” in 1974.
The “novelistic autobiography” was an instant hit — selling a million copies in its first year and several million more since.
It was followed in 1991 with “Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals,” which was a sequel of sorts but not as successful.
“Zen” was rejected 121 times before finally being published by William Morrow & Company, whose editor James Landis said prior to publication: “The book is brilliant beyond belief. It is probably a work of genius and will, I’ll wager, attain classic status,” according to the Times.
Not only was it a best-seller, but the book — inspired by a 1968 motorcycle trip that Pirsig took with his son Christopher (pictured above) — evolved into an enduring work of modern philosophy.
Pirsig enlisted in the U.S. Army after World War II and cemented his philosophical beliefs while stationed in South Korea, NPR reported. He was hospitalized for mental illness upon his return to Minneapolis, during which time he started working on his debut book.
In the introduction, Pirsig said that, despite its title, “It should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles, either.”
The description of his 17-day road trip from Minnesota to California is punctuated by numerous philosophical discussions, referred to as Chautauquas by the author, on topics including epistemology, ethical emotivism and the philosophy of science.
Pirsig is survived by his second wife, Wendy, children Ted and Nell, and three grandchildren.
His son, Chris, who figured prominently in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” was stabbed to death during a mugging outside the San Francisco Zen Center in 1979.