John Zerzan papers , 1946-2000

Overview of the Collection

Zerzan, John
John Zerzan papers
1946-2000 (inclusive)
10.25 linear feet, (22 containers)
Collection Number
Coll 273
John Zerzan (1943- ) is a writer and activist in anarchy in Oregon. The collection includes letters, essay and book drafts, and anarchist ephemera and publications that reflect his activities.
University of Oregon Libraries, Special Collections and University Archives
UO Libraries--SCUA
1299 University of Oregon
Eugene OR
Telephone: 5413463068
Access Restrictions

Collection is open to the public. Collection must be used in Special Collections and University Archives Reading Room. Collection or parts of collection may be stored offsite. Please contact Special Collections and University Archives in advance of your visit to allow for transportation time. Correspondence is closed until 2022.

Additional Reference Guides

See the Current Collection Guide for detailed description and requesting options.

Funding for encoding this finding aid was provided through a grant awarded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Historical NoteReturn to Top

A native to Oregon, John Zerzan was born in 1943 in Woodburn. In 1962, Zerzan attended Stanford University, graduating with a degree in political science (1966). After college, Zerzan worked for the Social Service Employee's Union in San Francisco as a union organizer and officer (1967-70). During his work as a labor activist, Zerzan became frustrated by the hierarchical and rigid structure of both traditional labor unions and Marxist organizations. Breaking from mainstream leftist activism in 1970, Zerzan worked with several anarchist collectives--Slingshot, Upshot, and Anti-Authoritarians Anonymous--propagandizing and organizing against urban gentrification, corporate greed, social control, and industrialization. The last of these elements, Zerzan's critique of industrialization and work would become the central focus of his future work. In 1970, he returned to school, receiving his Master's Degree in history from San Francisco State (1970-72), and later pursued his Ph.D. at the University of Southern California for three years (1972-75). Zerzan remained in California for several years, working odd jobs and continuing his activities in the radical community.

In 1981, Zerzan returned to Oregon, settling in Eugene, where he began to devote more time to his writing and activism in the anarchist community. Influenced, in part, by a growing movement of radical environmentalists in Eugene and a number of anarchists worldwide writing on similar issues, he continued to develop his critique of civilization.

Through his numerous written works, John Zerzan has made a significant contribution to anarchist discourse. Beginning in the late 1970s, John Zerzan wrote many articles for prominent academic journals and anarchist magazines. In these early pieces, such as "Taylorism and Unionism" or "Origins and Meaning of World War I," Zerzan's training as a historian is evident. He made early contributions to academic journals, such as the Discussion Bulletin and The Journal of Social History. In the early 1980s, Zerzan wrote a significant amount of material for the young and emerging journal Fifth Estate. Zerzan edited his first book in 1988, Elements of Refusal. Zerzan's work began to promote the concept of "primitivism" within the anarchist community, which fuses the anarchist critique of capitalism and authority, with a rejection of technology and civilization. In the late 1980s, Zerzan broke with the editors at Fifth Estate. He immediately began writing for Anarchy: the Journal of Desire Armed, writing articles, editorials, and book reviews for the important journal. Eventually, Zerzan assumed a position as contributing editor for the journal and continues to work in this capacity through 2002. Working more locally with the vibrant anarchist community in Eugene, Zerzan began to contribute to the production of the journal Green Anarchy, appeared on the weekly cable access programs "Cascadia Alive" and "Anarchy Forum," and hosted his own radio show, "Anarchy Radio," on the campus radio station at the University of Oregon.

Despite his numerous publications and omnipresence in the anarchist community, Zerzan's ideas about anarchism-primitivism did not reach the mainstream until his very public role in the case of the Unabomber. John Zerzan's incendiary rhetoric and radical environmentalism attracted the attention of the FBI in 1994 and became a central suspect in a series of mail package bombings, labeled the Unabomber attacks, which targeted scientists and businessmen. After the publication of the Unabomber manifesto, Zerzan gave interviews and lectures in defense of the Unabomber's ideas and philosophies. Coverage of Zerzan's opinions appeared in both national and international papers, such as the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times. After the arrest of Theodore Kaczynski for the bombings, Zerzan wrote him and finally visited him in 1995. The two corresponded regularly by letter for several years.

After the Unabomber case, Zerzan's ideas gained more attention. He published several large articles, re-printed his first book, Elements of Refusal, co-edited a collection of essays entitled Against Civilization, and most recently published Running on Emptiness. Primitivism also found new allies in radical environmental circles, such as Earth First! and the movement against neoliberalism. The protests at the meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO), located in Seattle in December of 1999, thrust Zerzan back into the media limelight. Anarchist groups from Eugene, such as the Black Bloc, gained a great deal of media attention for their activities in Seattle. As a very public figure and quasi-spokesman for Eugene anarchists, newspapers and magazines referred to Zerzan as their "leader" and "guru." While Zerzan certainly would reject these terms, it is clear that he has been an important figure in the large anarchist community of Eugene.

Content DescriptionReturn to Top

The John Zerzan Papers contain twenty-two boxes of letters, essay and book drafts, and anarchist ephemera and publications. Some materials, such as the calendars and correspondence, will allow the researcher to gain insights into Zerzan's own interests and activities. Other materials, such as the zines and newspaper clippings, relate the recent history of anarchism in Eugene, the United States, and elsewhere.

The collection is divided into nine series: correspondence, manuscripts, unpublished articles, large circulation radical publications, short prints and zines, topic files, ephemeral materials, oversized materials, and miscellaneous Items.

The Correspondence series is arranged alphabetically by author. In most instances, each folder contains correspondence from several individuals. In several cases, a folder has been devoted to one individual, as the number of letters justify separation. The incoming correspondence--letters sent to Zerzan--represent the majority of this series. There are a few pieces of outgoing correspondence, letters written by Zerzan, at the end of the series. These folders are distinguished by the term æoutgoing' in the folder title and are organized alphabetically by the individual they were addressed to. Researchers will be particularly interested in the extensive correspondence to and from Theodore Kacynzski, convicted in 1995 for the "Unabomber" killings. This series also includes a significant amount of material from important Anarchist primitivist thinkers like John Moore, Freddy Perlman, and John Filiss. As noted in the biographical sketch, Zerzan also maintains close contact with many political prisoners. Most of these individuals, such as Robert Thaxton, Jeffrey Luers, or Jim Magnuson, were convicted for crimes related to Anarchist or environmentalist causes.

The Manuscripts series includes a wide variety of Zerzan's written work. In some cases, within each folder, the researcher will find multiple drafts of one article. Many of these pieces have appeared in essay anthologies or published in journals, such as Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed or Telos. The final ten folders in this series are distinct from the scholarly article length materials. Several of these folders are notes and the text of speeches Zerzan delivered for conferences or meetings. Additionally, this series includes the numerous letters John Zerzan submitted to the æletters to the editor' section of various Newspapers and journals. Separate from this series, but perhaps of interest to a researcher, are the items from Upshot and AAA in the series of Related Ephemeral Materials. Many of these items, though unnattributed, were most likely written by Zerzan.

The Unpublished Articles series is divided into twelve folders. The series is relatively small and represents John Zerzan's collection of position papers, short articles, student papers written by individuals, and organizations interested in anarchist subjects. These articles cover a wide variety of topics, from Eugene anarchist-primitivism specifically to the anarchist movement in general.

The Large Circulation Radical Publications is organized alphabetically, according to the title of the publication. The materials in this series represent John Zerzan's collection of influential and prominent radical and journals over the last two decades. Many of the items in this series include articles either written by or about John Zerzan. Several of the other volumes include important articles about anarchist primitivism. While many of these documents are available in library collections, including the University of Oregon, other items are more difficult to locate.

The Short Print and æZines' series is arranged alphabetically. Most of these items lack any bibliographic control or record. On a few occasions the series contains concurrent issues of the same zine, such as the Black-Clad Messenger. Publications of this kind have long been popular in Anarchist culture, due to their simplicity and ease of distribution. Many of the items here were either produced locally in Eugene or represent an anarcho-primitivist perspective. These materials are very diverse in subject matter, ranging from the tactics of street protest to poetry and art, or the legal rights of an activist. Because of the ephemeral nature of much of this material, there is a great deal of overlap between this series and the Ephemera series. Likewise, in some cases, there is little distinction, and again much overlap, between the series of large circulation publications.

The Topic Files series includes John Zerzan's collection of articles from published sources. Comprised mainly of newsclippings and magazine articles, this series covers a wide variety of subjects. The largest of these, comprising the entire first box of the series, contains Zerzan's collection of articles related to the arrest of Theodore Kacynzski and the Unabomber trial. The second box contains articles related to anarchism, primitivism, and the anti-globalization movement. Although many of the items are available publicly, several folders, such as the police files pertaining to street protest in Eugene or court materials from the Unabomber trial, contain rare material. The third box contains folders of letters-to-the-editor, book reviews, and a number of reviews of Zerzan's own work from the mainstream and alternative press.

The Ephemeral Materials series includes local and international anarchist handbills, posters, etc. Some of these items were published in Eugene and others were sent to Zerzan from friends and comrades in other cities. These items were collected or sent to Zerzan and relate to a wide variety of topics - radical environmentalism, the Unabomber, and Eugene anarchist events. The items were, for the most part, not written or published by Zerzan. Instead, they reflect his interests and the wide variety of anarchist thought and subject matter. Most items have been classified according to the function of the item. In some cases, however, folders were classified by the organization that produced them or grouped together as a single subject. Additional ephemeral items are also located in the oversized series.

The Oversized series includes items that exceed standard letter or legal size. These are ephemeral posters, older editions of Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, and several of Zerzan's personal calendars.

The Miscellaneous series contains a number of personal items. Zerzan maintained very detailed records of his daily activities in annual calendars. Additionally, this series includes a folder of pictures of John Zerzan, his family, and friends.

Administrative InformationReturn to Top

Detailed Description of the CollectionReturn to Top

Names and SubjectsReturn to Top

Subject Terms

  • Anarchism--United States
  • Anarchism--United States--Periodicals
  • Anarchists--United States--Correspondence
  • Anti-globalization movement--United States
  • Authors, American--20th century
  • Deep ecology--United States
  • Primitivism--United States
  • Zines--United States--Specimens

Personal Names

  • Filiss, John
  • Kaczynski, Theodore John, 1942-
  • Luers, Jeffrey
  • Magnuson, Jim
  • Moore, John, 1957-
  • Perlman, Fredy
  • Thaxton, Robert
  • Zerzan, John
  • Zerzan, John

Form or Genre Terms

  • Diaries
  • Pamphlets
  • Zines