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Robert M. Pirsig´s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and the term ´Chautauqua´.


Pirsig on his bike




A short history of the Chautauqua movement

Reconstructing Phaedrus



The book describes a seventeen-day journey of father and son across the United States from Minneapolis, Minnesota to California. A rough outline of the route comprises Minnesota, the Dakotas, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and California. For the first nine days they are joined by a befriended couple, who, just like the narrator and his son, make their way across America on a motorcycle. The novel is set in the America of the late sixties (it was not published until 1974, though). At that time the narrator, whose name remains unknown to the reader throughout the book except for his former self that he refers to as ´Phaedrus´, has reached the age of forty (p.338), and his son Chris is around twelve (p.30f.). On their trip "secondary roads are preferred. Paved country roads are the best, state highways are next. Freeways are the worst" (p.14). Directly before this statement the narrator mentions that they "are just vacationing" (p.14), offering a first answer to the question of the purpose of the trip. Yet only three pages later (p.17) the reader is brought closer to what the book (and, presumably, the whole trip) is all about:

I would like to use the time to talk in some depth about things that seem important. What is in mind is a sort of Chautauqua — that´s the only name that I can think of for it — like the traveling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America, […] an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer. ( Pirsig, p.17)

The narrator sticks to this expression as well as to the lecture-form, the most defining element of the original Chautauquas, throughout the novel. He uses the term Chautauqua whenever he wants to present notions of a more theoretical kind: motorcycle maintenance, philosophy, technology, 20th century life, etc. These Chautauquas gain importance for the narrator on a very personal level, because the lectures become more specifically linked to the narrator´s life. Still, he never abandons pointing out general implications, trying to come to conclusions at the end of the Chautauquas (although sometimes the end of one and the beginning of another are blurred). A wide range of topics is discussed, which seemingly also inspired the narrator to come up with the term chautauqua. Other than that, parallels can be found in the ´lecturer´ being on the road in the U.S.A., his attachment to rural areas, and his system of day-trips in accordance with his chautauquas.


A short history of the Chautauqua Movement


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Consulting volume nine of ´The New Pelican Guide to English Literature´, the one dedicated to ´American Literature´, I find that "it was partly a yearning for self-improvement and partly a simple need for entertainment in the long quiet farming and small-town life that produced such phenomena as the Chautauqua Movement, which may be summed up briefly (no easy matter) as a programme of summer schools for the farming masses" (p.45)

The Lyceum Movement was a somewhat similar idea that preceded the Chautauquas. It was founded in 1826 in Massachusetts by Josiah Holbrook as a pioneer attempt at community education (it "was not limited to students in the academy, but was open to all the townsfolk, young and old" [Harding 1966, p.29]), its topics of lectures and debates ranging from morality to science. This idea spread and soon a circuit was established, originally an exchanging of lecturers between neighbouring lyceums. The Lyceum Movement gained popularity and it was inextricably linked to the Transcendentalists; R.W. Emerson (one of the first professional lecturers) gave around 100 lectures at Concord Lyceum and H.D. Thoreau read his ´Civil Disobedience´ publicly for the first time at the same place in 1848.


"Lecturing in the lyceum was as close as they came to converting a truly transcendental mode of utterance into popular success. This indeed seemed to be a form in which unfrocked ministers could display their talents to best advantage. Lecturing involved many of the same oratorical techniques as preaching. It was a rapidly expanding field; and above all, it was open-ended. Anything was possible in the lecture room. ´You may laugh, weep, reason, sing, sneer, or pray, according to your genius,´ Emerson told Carlyle" (Buell, p.52.).


Another literary icon of nineteenth-century America also lecturing at the Lyceum Movement was Mark Twain.

"I began as a lecturer in 1866 in California and Nevada; in 1867 lectured in New York once and in the Mississippi valley a few times, in 1868 made the whole Western circuit, and in the two or three following seasons added the Eastern circuit to my route. The ´Lyceum system´ was in full flower in those days" (Twain, p.161).

This ´system´, as Twain called it, must have been inspiration enough for John Vincent, a Methodist minister, to start a summer school of a similar kind in 1874 at Lake Chautauqua in New York state. In the following year President Ulysses S. Grant spoke at the Chautauqua, which helped Vincent to establish a reputation that was confirmed by lecturers like Thomas Edison, Booker T. Washington, and Nobel Prize winner Jane Adams. Vincent´s idea, to repeat, had an anti-elitist undercurrent, and traveling to New York state was not possible especially for poorer people who were interested. That way, daughter or independent assemblies were beginning to spread across the country



The program consisted of musicians of all kinds (opera ensembles, string quartets, but also more lighthearted music), dramatic productions, entertainment of all sorts, but the backbone of the Chautauquas were lectures on topics like politics, morality or science.

Unhappy still with the permanent character of these Chautauquas, Keith Vawter established what Pirsig calls "the traveling tent-show" in 1904. This endeavor made it easier to reach also more rural areas without being restricted to local talent performances. Lecturers moved from town to town on a specific route, and thus each town could be offered the same program. Three years later this circuit, still run by Keith Vawter, visited thirty-three towns and the program was revised and the three-day Chautauqua became a seven-day event. A tent was set up as close to Main Street as possible on Monday and on the following Sunday the tent was taken down again, put into a railroad baggage car and moved to another town.

The Chautauqua Movement became a major social and also political influence, and although the years of World War I interrupted the circuits somewhat, in the years between 1920 and 1924 Chautauquas reached their peak of attendances. In this heyday, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the mother Chautauqua in New York state, programs were presented in around ten-thousand towns to approximately thirty million people, roughly on-third of the nation´s population at that time. After that, attendance began to decline; radio made its appearance on the cultural scene, making available at people´s homes on a permanent basis what up to that time had only been a once-in-a-year occasion. Additionally, rural depression struck at the heart of the Chautauquas’ target-audience, the farming masses. The proliferation of automobiles offered as yet unknown mobility also to poorer people and altered the way people spent their times and means.


As a consequence, the program focused on entertainment; magicians, yodelers, and jugglers turned Chautauquas into something closely resembling vaudevilles. The local civic leaders who had always guaranteed the expenses were no longer willing and, especially during the Great Depression, were not able to do so, and by 1933 the tent chautauquas had nearly all vanished. Only the original Chautauqua Institute in New York and a few permanent Chautauquas remained.




Reconstructing Phaedrus


One of the central aspects of Robert Pirsig´s Chautauquas in his novel is reconstructing and coming to terms with what used to be his personality before it was destroyed in an attempt to save him or cure him from insanity.

But who was the old personality whom they had known and presumed I was a continuation of? This was my first inkling of the existence of Phaedrus, many years ago. In the days and weeks and years that have followed, I´ve learned much more. He was dead. Destroyed by order of the court, enforced by the transmission of high-voltage alternating current through the lobes of his brain. […] A whole personality had been liquidated without a trace in a technologically faultless act that has defined our relationship ever since. I have never met him. Never will (p. 93f.).

Trying to reconstruct Phaedrus´ life as a reader is no easy task. Following the narrator on his trip, we are by no means offered a straightforward account of what he remembers, because the narrator himself is not able to remember in a linear way. His rememberance is fostered by flashes of "he´s been here" (p.38), which bring back more details that are presented to the reader. Consequently, there is no chronology of events; hints are only few and far between the narration of the trip and Phaedrus´ and the narrator´s philosophy. So it seems a worthwhile project to tie together what can be found in order to establish a clearer picture of Phaedrus´ life. Since the narrator tries to connect fragments of Phaedrus´ philosophy, information about his life is only presented to the reader if it illustrates the development of his system of thought, or the system that it eventually is to become.

So, quite strangely, the first information about his life is that at the age of fourteen he was admitted to studying biochemistry at University (p.116), but we do not learn where and when. The reason for this early start of a scientific career lies in the fact that "his Stanford-Binet IQ was recorded at 170" (p. 90), which in turn is probably also the reason for his leaving University again, being expelled from the University, at age seventeen, for failing grades; "immaturity and inattention to studies were given as official causes" ( p. 121); the narrator gives a reason of a more philosophical kind (p. 119-121). He joined the Army, "which sent him to Korea" (p. 125); yet the narrator does not mention any involvement in fightings, but comments on his letter-writing and reports on contact with the Korean people ("laborers", p.125) and their culture. There is no reference to the duration of his stay.

After his discharge from the Army he returned to the University again, this time to study philosophy (p.127). Did he finish his studies? When? He surely did not make it to the Ph.D. degree (later he enrolled at the University of Chicago for that purpose (p. 340)). Before starting to teach at Montana State College, he spent some years in India; the according passage in the novel reads like this:

There´s a span of about ten years missing. He didn´t jump from Immanuel Kant to Bozeman, Montana. During this span of ten years he lived in India for a long time studying Oriental philosophy at Benares Hindu University.

Again we do not learn any exact dates. At some time he comes back to the States, again after having quit his studies for philosophical reasons (see p. 146).

He returned to his Midwest, picked up a practical degree in journalism, married, lived in Nevada and Mexico, did odd jobs, worked as a journalist, a science writer and an industrial-advertising writer. He fathered two children, bought a farm and a riding horse and two cars and was starting to put on middle-aged weight. His pursuit of what has been called the ghost of reason had been given up (p. 147).

Calling the Midwest "his Midwest" seems to suggest that he spent his childhood there. Other than that, by the way, there are no references to his upbringing. During this time of traditional family life he "was easy to get along with and, except for an occasional glimpse of inner emptiness shown in some short stories he wrote at the time, his days passed quite usually" (p. 147). At some point in the fifties (when?) he started teaching at Montana State College, Bozeman. His subjects were rhetoric and writing ("advanced courses in technical writing and some sections of freshman English", p. 178). So to obtain his Ph.D. degree, which he needed to continue his teaching, he moved to Chicago with his family, studying Greek philosophy at the University of Chicago (p. 340) and teaching rhetoric full-time at the University of Illinois (p. 352).

They only thought him eccentric at first, then undesirable, then slightly mad, and the genuinely insane.[…] In Phaedrus´s case there was a court-ordered police arrest and permanent removal from society (p. 77).

And thus, Phaedrus was gone, only to reappear some six years later, ghost-like, on a motorcycle trip of father and son.





ALLEN, Gay Wilson. Waldo Emerson. A Biography. New York 1981.

BUELL, Lawrence. Literary Transcendentalism. Style and Vision in the American Renaissance. Ithaca and London 1973.

FORD, Boris (ed.). American Literature. Volume 9 of the New Pelican Guide to English Literature. London, 1988, 1991.

HARDING, Walter. The Days of Henry Thoreau. New York 1966.

PIRSIG, Robert M.. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. London 1974, 1989.

TWAIN, Mark. The Autobiography of Mark Twain.(Neider, Charles, ed.) New York 1959.