John Zerzan papers , 1917-2022

Overview of the Collection

Zerzan, John
John Zerzan papers
1917-2022 (inclusive)
43.5 linear feet, (45 containers)  :  2022 processing added: 11 record storage boxes, 3 manuscript boxes, 7 flat storage boxes, 2 tubes
Collection Number
Coll 273
John Zerzan (1943- ) is a writer and anarchist activist 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. Collection includes sound recordings, moving images, and digital files to which access is restricted. Access to these materials is governed by repository policy and may require the production of listening or viewing copies. Researchers requiring access must notify Special Collections and University Archives in advance and pay fees for reproduction services as necessary.

Additional Reference Guides

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

English, Italian, German, French, Croatian, Turkish, Portuguese, Finnish, Bosnian, Spanish; Castilian, Korean
Funding for encoding this finding aid was provided through a grant awarded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Historical NoteReturn to Top

John Zerzan was born in 1943 in Woodburn, Oregon. In 1962, Zerzan attended Stanford University, graduating with a degree in political science in 1966. After college, Zerzan worked for the Social Service Employee's Union in San Francisco as a union organizer and officer from 1967-1970. 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 in 1972, and his Ph.D. at the University of Southern California in 1975. 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. Eventually, Zerzan assumed a position as contributing editor for the journal and continued 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 presence 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 he 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, although they eventually had a falling out over ideological differences.

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 published a new book, 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."

Content DescriptionReturn to Top

The John Zerzan papers contain correspondence and letters, essay and book manuscript drafts, audiovisual and digital recordings, and anarchist zines and periodicals. These both document Zerzan's own activites as well as reflect his collecting interests. Also included are personal papers and memorabilia, such as annotated calendars, photograph albums, and flyers and documents related to his travels and speaking tours.

Correspondence includes letters both personal and professional in nature. Some noteworthy correspondants include Theodore (Ted) Kacynzski, convicted in 1995 for the "Unabomber" killings; anarchist primitivist thinkers, John Moore, Freddy Perlman, and John Filiss; and individuals imprisoned for anarchist and environmental activist activities, including Robert Thaxton, Jeffrey Luers, and Jim Magnuson.

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, 1957-2002
  • Perlman, Fredy
  • Thaxton, Robert
  • Zerzan, John

Form or Genre Terms

  • Diaries
  • Pamphlets
  • Zines