Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), is born on this day in Minneapolis.
Pirsig, the son of a Minnesota law professor, rose rapidly to fame with his novel, which was based partly on his own experiences. The book chronicled the motorcycle journey of the narrator, a former philosophy professor who underwent involuntary electric shock treatment for alleged insanity, across the country with his 11-year-old son. Along the way, the narrator ruminates on philosophical approaches to life, arguing that motorcycle maintenance is a metaphor for life. He also succeeds in healing a deep emotional rift with his son.
The book was rejected by more than 120 publishing houses before it was published by William Morrow and Company in 1974. Pirsig received only a $3,000 advance and was warned that the book would probably bomb. It became a cult classic, selling more than 4 million copies in the next 25 years. Tragically, Pirsig’s son was stabbed to death in a mugging 10 years after the book came out.
After the book’s publication, Pirsig spent several years living on a boat and traveling the world. In 1991, he published Lila, another deeply philosophical novel.