Montana State University

Robert Pirsig, former MSU instructor whose ‘Zen’ spoke to a generation, dead at 88

April 25, 2017

A copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig sits on a desk during a class about Pirsig's work at Montana State University. Pirsig, the author and former Montana State English instructor who inspired a generation to look inward to the "high country of the mind" with his book "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," died at his home in Maine this week, according to his publishers. He was 88. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham

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Robert Pirsig, the author and former Montana State English instructor who inspired a generation to look inward to the "high country of the mind" with his book "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," died at his home in Maine this week, according to his publishers. He was 88.

Pirsig received an honorary doctorate from Montana State University in 2012.

Pirsig taught English at what was then Montana State College between 1959 and 1961, and he wrote that his time at Montana State and the colleagues and friends he met in Bozeman were central to the development of his novel, which was published in 1974 to wide acclaim.

Set just a few years after Pirsig recovered from a mental breakdown, “Zen” is on the simplest level a narration of a father and son's summer motorcycle trip across America’s Northwest, including a stop in Bozeman and Cottonwood Canyon outside the city to visit his friends, the late MSU art professor Bob DeWeese and his wife, Ginnie, a successful artist.

“The author uses the road trip as a way to explain his ideas about ‘quality,’ a concept much on the minds of people at the time but that defies easy definition,” wrote local author Michael Becker in a story about MSU’s connection to the book published in the fall 2011 issue of MSU’s Mountains and Minds magazine.

Pirsig wrote that he began to develop his thoughts about the importance of quality in life when challenged to think about the issue by Sarah Vinke, who also taught English at MSC.

MSU’s 2011 Mountains and Minds magazine story featured Pirsig’s years at MSU as well as the annual visit to campus by what are called “Pirsig’s Pilgrims,” or fans of the book who retraces Pirsig’s motorcycle journey. Each summer, current inhabitants of Pirsig’s former office in MSU’s Montana Hall report that they are visited by the pilgrims, who want to see where Pirsig worked. MSU students have dedicated a plaque in the building that honors Pirsig.

Pirsig’s Pilgrims also journey to Cottonwood Canyon outside Bozeman to visit the home of the DeWeeses. Josh DeWeese, the couple’s son who is now a professor of ceramics at MSU, said Pirsig and his parents were “part of a small collective of young excited faculty in a small western town.” “As characters in Zen, the DeWeeses played the foil to Pirsig's analytic and scientific mind.

“Years later, when he made the trip the book is based on he stopped to visit, and my folks became characters in the story, representing an alternative perception of reality that shared his interest in the question, ‘what is quality?’”

It was through his friendship with the DeWeeses that Michael Sexson, professor emeritus of English, also heard about Pirsig. In 1972, two years before “Zen” was published by William Morrow, Bob DeWeese showed Sexson a manuscript written by a friend in which he and Ginnie were characters. Sexson said he had no idea that manuscript would become a book that hit a nerve with a generation of seekers.

A blend of philosophy, literature and religion, “Zen” has sold more than five million copies over the past four decades. The book is still taught in classes throughout the world. Time magazine listed "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" on its 2011 list of "All-TIME 100 Nonfiction Books."

Sexson said Pirsig's writings have earned him comparison with Dostoyevsky and Melville.

"Pirsig has universalized these people, that canyon road, and this university town as completely as James Joyce universalized the people and places of Dublin," Sexson said when he nominated Pirsig for the 2012 honorary doctorate. Sexson also accepted the honorary doctorate for Pirsig, who was ill and unable to travel outside his home. Sexson, who also organized a two-day conference at MSU about Pirsig and his writings in connection with the honorary doctorate, said news of Pirsig’s death set him to thinking again about the author’s writings and contributions to contemporary literature.

“When I heard of the passing of Robert Pirsig I instantly thought of what the great British composer Ralph Vaughn Williams said about his own passage to what he called ‘the other world,’” Sexson said. “’There, he said, ‘I won’t be doing music, I will be being it.’ Robert Pirsig now has become the Quality he so heroically failed to articulate in this world.”

Tracy Ellig (406) 994-5607, tellig@montana.edu

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