ZAMM and Robert Pirsig’s Locations in Minneapolis

Posted on February 12, 2012 by peter bell

Photo: Minnesota Historical Society

The literary genre known as philosophical fiction is also referred to as “novels of ideas.”  Typically, novels of this particular vein use conventions of literature (story, characters, narrative arc) to make broader philosophical arguments. Often times, these novels are used to illustrate the author’s particular views on the trajectory of society (such as Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace), to analyze a facet of human nature (like Voltaire’s Candide), or to create a discussion on ethics, morals, or values.  For that last example, an exceptionally interesting book is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (or ZAMM from here on; also known as ZMM) is a densely energetic story of a father and son’s motorcycle trip across America on the surface, but its philosophical underpinnings vary from deconstructing classical Greek meditations on the nature of quality, to the rise of the counter-culture in America, to a darkly analytic exorcism of personal madness.  In short, it’s a pretty damn good read.

Robert Pirsig was born in Minneapolis, MN on September 6, 1928 to Maynard and Harriet Sjobeck.  Robert’s father was a University of Minnesota Law School graduate, professor, and later dean, at the University of Minnesota Law School and William Mitchell College of Law.

At the age of 9, Robert Pirsig tested with an I.Q. of 170, and he was moved up several grades, later attending the prestigious Blake School in Minneapolis.  Accelerating through school, he was granted a high school diploma at the age of 15 and began attending the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis as a biochemistry student.

Pirsig attended classes for two years before being expelled from the university for failing grades and inattention to studies.  He joined the army in 1946 following the end of World War II, trained at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, and was stationed in Korea until 1948.  After being honorably discharged, Bob gained his B.A. in philosophy at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis by 1950.  He traveled to India in 1951 and studied philosophy at Benares Hindu University for a year and a half.

Robert Pirsig’s journey from 1951 to 1966 was filled with odd jobs, teaching positions, hospitalizations and further academic studies.  By 1966, Pirsig was living with his wife and sons in St. Paul, MN near the Mississippi River.  A year later in 1967, Pirsig wrote his first essay comparing Herrigel’s Zen and the Art of Archery and his opposing views on motorcycle maintenance for his contemporary, John Sutherland.

Later that same year, Pirsig left his previous job to write technical manuals for Century Publications above Robert’s Shoes on East Lake Street in Minneapolis.  He was drafting outlines of his various ideas for a book and had the working title of ZAMM.  In 1968 (aged 39), Pirsig began advising prospective publishers of his intent to write the book, submitting test pages and asking for possible interest.  He submitted the proposal to 121 publishers before ZAMM received interest from James Landis at William Morrow and Co. on June 10, 1968.

On July 8, 1968, Pirsig and his son, Chris, left with John and Cynthia Sutherland on a motorcycle trip from Minneapolis to San Francisco, a trip that formed the narrative basis for ZAMM.  For the next four years, Pirsig worked on ZAMM.  From 1970 to 1971, he would write from 2 am to 6 am at his office of Century Publications before work and then go to sleep at 6 pm.

Photo: Pete Markham

In the early spring of 1972, Pirsig wrote the last five chapters of the book in a camper on the banks of Lake Superior at a campground in northern Minnesota.  In January of 1973 the book was sold, and by 1974 ZAMM saw its first printing.

During the same time frame, Pirsig was becoming more heavily involved in Zen meditation.  He began practicing with Dainin Katagiri Roshi, and Pirsig became a board member and vice-president of the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center in 1973.

Since its initial publication, ZAMM has gone on to sell 5 million copies.  The combination of Zen “in-the-moment” worldview and mechanic rationalizations (pun acknowledged) has continued to intrigue and challenge readers for the past 38 years.

Here are the locations for Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance…

Twin Cities, MN


St. Paul

North Minnesota

Two Harbors

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3 Responses to ZAMM and Robert Pirsig’s Locations in Minneapolis

  1. David Buchanan says:

    The most recent episode of the top-ranked philosophy podcast (The Partially Examined Life) is a 90-minute discussion of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. One can subscribe to the podcast at the iTunes store or simply play the audio from their website. Either way, it’s free. https://www.partiallyexaminedlife.com/2012/02/03/episode-50-pirsigs-zen-and-the-art-of-motorcycle-maintenance/

  2. bob haddow says:

    Local author in need of assistance! Did Robert Pirsig or John Sutherland have any ties in the Seward Neighborhood of Mpls? The Seward History Group is writing a book about our history and if anyone can suggest a lead, shed some light on John Sutherland’s location, etc., I’d really appreciate it. Thanks, Bob H.

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