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Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (1991)

von William Cronon

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8721118,944 (4.31)1
In this groundbreaking work, William Cronon gives us an environmental perspective on the history of nineteenth-century America. By exploring the ecological and economic changes that made Chicago America's most dynamic city and the Great West its hinterland, Mr. Cronon opens a new window onto our national past. This is the story of city and country becoming ever more tightly bound in a system so powerful that it reshaped the American landscape and transformed American culture. The world that emerged is our own. Winner of the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize… (mehr)
Kürzlich hinzugefügt vonprivate Bibliothek, tai115, alswell, JackChelgren, HilaryCallahan, mcharbel32, JennRobinson, PC-jacoby, JamesBeach, golson17g
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I've been really into economic histories lately, and this analysis of Chicago's development and its relationship to the Midwest it came to dominate was both staggeringly detailed and elegantly well-written. On the highest level, this is sort of a refutation and extension of Frederick Jackson Turner's "frontier hypothesis" (short version: the old countries of Europe never had the Wild West's unique conflict between the "individual freedom" of society's rejects on the frontier and the "law and order" back in the Eastern cities, which helped explain why America was so different than its transatlantic ancestors). Cronon's copiously researched opinion is that city and country, far from being opposed, critically depend on each other. For example, he explores how the holy trinity of the grain elevator, grade standardization (a pile of wheat became "no. 1 spring wheat"), and futures trading at the Board of Trade revolutionized how farmers sold their goods, to the extent that Chicago is a world center of commodities trading to this day and the Midwest is some of the most productive farmland on the planet. Without Chicago (and to a lesser extent similar cities like St. Louis, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, and Kansas City; the sections where he traces the rail and financial linkages between them are awesome), the settlers at the frontier never would have managed a living for want of markets; without the farmers producing goods for consumption and distribution, Chicago would have no reason for ever existing. Reading this book so soon after The Box brought home a lot of lessons on how miraculous our current standard of living is: in some ways the Industrial Revolution has never ended, and the great wave of commerce that stretches back to the early 1800s has only begun for most of the world. The book touches mainly grain, lumber, and meat out of the hundreds of goods that Chicago shipped, stored, refined, or revolutionized, but it does a fantastic job of showing not only why Chicago is one of the great cities of the world, but how America has evolved and innovated over time. Basically the only thing I didn't like about the book was that it could have been longer and included more insight from urban development economics. Cronon spends a great deal of time using Von Thünen's concentric circle model as a foil to show how cities don't just accrete in a vacuum but develop symbiotically with the hinterland they create, but it feels like he strawman's this very simple and very old model unnecessarily. If he had used some more modern work in urban development from someone like Ed Glaeser or Paul Krugman (who later wrote an excellent paper on this very book) I think readers would have benefited, but otherwise it was genius. ( )
  aaronarnold | May 11, 2021 |
If I was more into the Midwest I would have given this title another star. Even so, the perspective of the mid to late 19th century conversion of the Midwest from natural landscape to a completely extracted farm was enlightening. Excruciating, but enlightening. The prairies were plowed under on farms made possible by converting the great northern forests to lumber. Chicago markets and finance made it all possible.

The voraciousness of markets and the shortsighted lure of profits today spell doom and destruction for natural and wild landscapes. The 19th century mindset held no conception that the natural world was a limited resource. And one that is necessary to the maintenance of life.

How does the culture get changed to become aware and develop some reverence for the natural world? Books like this help. ( )
  Mark-Bailey | Aug 7, 2020 |
This is one of the best books on history I've read. The combination of natural, environmental, cultural, and urban history that forms this picture of the life of Chicago is just fantastic. ( )
  stormdog | Dec 17, 2018 |
This fascinating book explores the intricate interweaving of the City and the Country in American economic reality that simultaneously explains and belies a commonly-perceived distinction in the American mythos that presents the City as the epitome of all that is evil and the Country as the epitome of all that is wholesome. The economic tale, told in great detail through the story of three key natural resources' journeys to becoming commodities in Chicago markets (wheat, timber, and pork), is much more complicated than the mythic construction admits. City and Country are human constructs of what Cronon calls "second nature," and are interdependent rather than opposed. The issue with "second nature" (the human-created order imposed on the ecosystem; e.g., the railroad) is that, though it radically transforms both human and ecological existence, it does so in such a way as to be self-effacing.

In truth, I chose to read this book thinking it would be similar to Ian Frazier's "Great Plains" and Jonathan Raban's "Badlands" (a truly remarkable book!). That initial hunch was both right and wrong. I was wrong to think of the book as a work of "cultural geography" like Frazier's and Raban's work; it was far too focused on economics for that (though, in truth, it did tread some of the same ground). However, that in fact, became for me one of the more fascinating aspects of the book; Cronon's explanation especially of the development of the grain futures market (through the story of the development of the Chicago Board of Trade) was wonderfully written. However, toward the end of the book, when Cronon begins to map the competing "moral geographies" of City and Country present in late 19th-century literature, my hunch proves correct, for Cronon's work there very much connects with the unique cultural geography of American Western life.

Perhaps for me, the most intriguing aspect of Cronon's work was his exposition of the meaning of Chicago's Columbian World Exposition in 1893. He notes that the Exposition must be considered in relation to the Great Chicago Fire, representing an important "death/resurrection" sequence in Midwestern American self-understanding. The "White City," then, was much more than a grandiose display of American achievement but a grandiose vision of the world's future, an attempt to prophesy what humanity could and should become. However, observer Henry Adams, who visited Chicago twice, was not as impressed, saying: "Chicago, asked in 1893 for the first time the question whether the American people knew where they were driving." I find it interesting that Cronon's reflection on the relationship of City and Country concludes with an extended reflection on the relationship of Past and Future. And just as the prior relationship reveals itself to be complex, so also the promise of unending future Progress appeared already in 1893 to be ambiguously tenuous.

I suppose in this I am drawing lessons from Cronon that he never intended to teach, his focus being much more on correcting this false dichotomy between City and Country by explaining their economic interrelationships. Or, better, perhaps I am applying the lessons Cronon is teaching to my own particular interests in understanding the fundamental impact of modernity on the archetypal American psyche, most clearly manifested in a near-fanatical "rugged individualism" as well as an obstinate faith in unending progress. In some ways, Cronon's book offers an "economic" leg to the growing evidence that the myths of modernity have failed. Economic growth is not limitless; progress is not unending; and radical individualism is not psychologically nor sociologically sustainable. In the end, Mr. Adams was right; no matter the White City's beautiful electric glow, we didn't know where we were driving. And now we've ended up somewhere that wasn't on our map, lost in a world of our own finite and fallen creation. ( )
  Jared_Runck | Dec 28, 2017 |
In Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, William Cronon argues, “No city played a more important role in shaping the landscape and economy of the midcontinent during the second half of the nineteenth century than Chicago” (pg. xv). He writes with the ambition of exploring “century-old economic and ecological transformations that have continued to affect all of North America and the world besides” (pg. xvi). He argues, “City and country have a common history, so their stories are best told together” (pg. xvi). In his analysis, he uses the terms first and second nature, from Hegel and Marx, to denote the difference between prehuman nature and artificial, human-created nature. Cronon primarily focuses on commodity exchanges, such as with grain, timber, and meat, exploring how human modification changed their value and the landscape needed to produce and move them. He book “is a series of historical journeys between city and country in an effort to understand the city’s place in nature” (pg. 8). He concludes, “Nature’s Metropolis and the Great West are in fact different labels for a single region and the relationships that defined it. By erasing the false boundary between them, we can begin to recover their common past” (pg. 19).
Of the city, Cronon writes, “By the second half of the nineteenth century, Chicago would stand as the greatest metropolis in the continent’s interior, with all the Great West in some measure a part of its hinterland and empire” (pg. 26). In a lengthy passage, Cronon summarizes the difference in people’s understanding of Chicago’s significance before and after Turner’s frontier thesis. He writes,
"For Turner and his followers, frontier development had been slow and evolutionary, with cities appearing only after a long period of rural agricultural growth. Cities marked the end of the frontier. For the boosters, on the other hand, western cities could and did appear much more suddenly. They grew in tandem with the countryside and played crucial roles in encouraging settlement from a very early time. City and country formed a single commercial system, a single process of rural settlement and metropolitan economic growth. To speak of one without the other made little sense" (pg. 47).
As an alternative to Turner or the boosters’ model, Cronon uses the isolated state model of Johann Heinrich von Thünen, which created a series of zones radiating out from the city center, each based on the distance and cost of moving materials to the city. Based on this, “what the farmers found in Chicago was the western outpost of a metropolitan economy centered on the great cities of Europe and the American Northeast” (pg. 60). Eventually, Cronon argues “the railroad…became the chief device for introducing a new capitalist logic to the geography of the Great West,” reducing distance to time (pg. 81). In this way, Cronon concludes, “Chicago this grew to metropolitan status less from being what the boosters called central than from being peripheral. By defining the boundary between two railroad systems that operated within radically different markets – even as both sought to meet the same fundamental problems of fixed costs and minimum income – Chicago became the link that bound the different worlds of east and west into a single system” (pg. 91). The commoditization and creation of new means of travel merged Cronon’s first and second natures. He writes, “The merging of first and second nature was thus a shift from local ecosystem to regional hinterland and global economy,” with a new focus on monocultures (pg. 267). He continues, “In economic and environmental terms, we should think of a city and its hinterland not as two clearly defined and easily recognizable places but as a multitude of overlapping market and resource regions” (pg. 278). By the end of the nineteenth century, “City and country were growing closer together. The diminishing distance separating them was measured not just in the similar products one could buy in their stores but in the information that passed between them,” including economic data sent via telegraph and telegram, which influenced the sale of commodities (pg. 332). ( )
  DarthDeverell | Jul 8, 2017 |
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In this groundbreaking work, William Cronon gives us an environmental perspective on the history of nineteenth-century America. By exploring the ecological and economic changes that made Chicago America's most dynamic city and the Great West its hinterland, Mr. Cronon opens a new window onto our national past. This is the story of city and country becoming ever more tightly bound in a system so powerful that it reshaped the American landscape and transformed American culture. The world that emerged is our own. Winner of the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize

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