MSU acquires letters from ‘Zen’ author Pirsig


Kelly Gorham, MSU

A congratulatory letter from author Robert Pirsig to Anthony McWatt in the Montana State University Library Special Collections.

BOZEMAN — The Montana State University Library has acquired a collection of letters written to and from one of the university’s most famous employees, the author Robert Pirsig.

Pirsig was an 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.” Published in 1974 to wide acclaim, “Zen” was inspired in part by events that started between 1959 and 1961, when Pirsig was an English professor at what was then Montana State College.

The collection, which is available to the public to view in MSU Library’s Special Collection and Archives, includes correspondence between Pirsig and a graduate student with whom Pirsig corresponded for more than a year. The collection also includes two signed and inscribed copies of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” monographs, audio cassettes and CD-ROMs.

The student, Anthony M. McWatt, began to correspond with Pirsig in 1993 after sending Pirsig a copy of his master’s thesis, which drew heavily on Pirsig’s work. McWatt earned a master’s degree from the University of Sheffield in 1990 and a doctorate from the University of Liverpool in 2005.

The letters between Pirsig and McWatt provide insight into the philosophy Pirsig wrote about in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” including how he developed that philosophy, according to Heather Hultman, curator in MSU Library’s Special Collections.

“Dr. McWatt would ask about something from the book, and then (McWatt and Pirsig) would have a lengthy discussion about it,” Hultman said. “It gives a unique insight into Pirsig’s creative process.”

Individuals interested in Pirsig and late 20th century American thought will likely find the collection interesting, said MSU University Archivist Kim Scott.

“Pirsig’s book appears on (many lists) of the most influential books of the 20th century,” Scott said. “Anyone interested in pursuing what goes into that philosophy and how he explained those ideas to others will be interested in this collection.”

The book 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 Pirsig’s friends, the late MSU art professor Bob DeWeese and his wife, Gennie.

On another level, however, “Zen” is a blend of philosophy, literature and religion that is still taught in classes throughout the world. More than 5 million copies have been sold since it was published.

Scott also noted that visitors from throughout the world — informally nicknamed “Pirsig’s Pilgrims” — still come to MSU every summer to see the office Pirsig once occupied in Montana Hall as well as other places Pirsig mentions in the book.

The new collection complements a collection of correspondence the MSU Library holds between Pirsig and Bob and Gennie DeWeese, Scott said. Both were close friends with Pirsig and mentioned often in “Zen.”

“The DeWeese collection shows a friendship developed here in Bozeman,” Scott said. “The (McWatt) collection then shows a friendship based on a correspondence that came years afterwards. In other words, you see Pirsig grow. He was writing to the DeWeeses because they were old friends. With Dr. McWatt, he was essentially making friends with somebody who was studying him. It’s a different perspective to understanding who he was.”

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