Motorcycle Symbolizes Author Robert Pirsig’s Impact on America’s Relationship With Technology
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will be the new home of American author Robert M. Pirsig’s 1966 Honda Super Hawk motorcycle featured in his book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values. Pirsig’s book, originally published by William Morrow in 1974, has sold more than 5 million copies and has been translated into 27 languages. The inspiration for Zen stemmed from a monthlong road trip Pirsig (1928–2017) took with his 11-year-old son Chris in 1968.
As they rode along the 5,700 miles from the Twin Cities of Minnesota to San Francisco and back, Pirsig became better acquainted with his son and himself. The book kick-started an international cultural movement to rethink how people interact with technology and find balance in life.
Stored for decades in the family’s New England garage and recently mechanically restored, the motorcycle is a gift from Pirsig’s widow, Wendy K. Pirsig. In addition to the motorcycle, the gift includes Pirsig’s leather jacket, maps, shop manual and other gear from the 1968 ride, together with a manuscript copy and signed first edition of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig’s favorite toolboxes, with tools for maintaining his bike and other vehicles as well as tools he made himself, are also part of the donation.
“This is the most famous forgotten motorcycle in American history and literature,” said Paul Johnston, curator of transportation at the National Museum of American History. “Pirsig was a trailblazer in motorcycle touring and documenting its celebration of freedom and the open road.”
Zen also tells a story about the relationship between people and machines that made Pirsig a pioneer in the human–technology interface and do-it-yourself maintenance and repair.
“Bob’s philosophy explored human values, and he aimed to show how quality is actually at the center of all existence,” Wendy Pirsig said. “It seems consistent with this focus on quality that his motorcycle collection joins the nation’s exemplary history museum at the Smithsonian.”
Pirsig’s musings marked a shift in the narrative from replacement of worn with new parts to a focus on a more harmonious balance of parts working together in tune. In addition to presenting his philosophical ideas, Zen was a testament to Pirsig’s patience and perseverance, as the autobiographical novel was rejected by 121 publishers before being picked up by Morrow. Since then, the text has formed the core of college courses, and dedicated fans have retraced the novel’s cross-country trip.
Through incomparable collections, rigorous research and dynamic public outreach, the National Museum of American History explores the infinite richness and complexity of American history. It helps people understand the past in order to make sense of the present and shape a more humane future. The museum is located on Constitution Avenue N.W., between 12th and 14th streets, and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free. For more information, visit http://americanhistory.si.edu. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000.