Like The Country and the City, but with History

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Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West
William Cronon, 1991

The basic thrust of most of Cronon’s writing is that dualities like nature and humanity, ecology and economy, country and city are not merely two sides of the same coin, but are parts of a complex whole that has been obscured by both market and anti-market (romantic) forces. Nature’s Metropolis uses the history of Chicago to illustrate this point. Beginning and ending with his personal memory of a childhood journey from New England to Wisconsin that took him through the city, Cronon concludes “We fool ourselves if we think we can choose between [country and city], for the green lake and the orange cloud are creatures of the same landscape” (385). The text is a series of increasingly fine-grained illustrations of this point.

Cronon uses several interpretive frames to explore Chicago’s history, and he points out some of their limitations. Frederick Jackson Turner’s idea that the frontier “recapitulated the social evolution of human civilization” and provided the “source of American energy, individualism, and political democracy” (31) fails to account for the rapid, booster-driven growth of Chicago as an urban center. Turner did not give enough credit, Cronon says, to the market as an agent of both rural and urban change. “Urban-rural commerce,” he says, “was the motor of frontier change, a fact that the boosters understood better than Turner” (48). Of course, you could argue that Turner
had to ignore the role of capital, precisely because it undermined his evolutionary, democratic vision of the frontier and America.

Cronon uses Johann Heinrich von Thünen’s Isolated State theory and more recent central place theory to complicate and partially correct Turner’s perspective. Von Thünen’s idealized economy creates a series of concentric rings drawn primarily on the basis of transportation cost. While acknowledging the heavy qualifications necessary to apply this model in the real world, Cronon says it fits Chicago to a certain degree. By focusing attention on the growth of rail transport, which not only lowered costs but more importantly eliminated risk and smoothed seasonality, the model explains some of the features of Chicago’s western “hinterland.” But, as Cronon says, both theories are “profoundly static and ahistorical.” Worse, like Turner, a model of Chicago based on the Isolated State is simply untrue. “Far from being a gradual, bottom-up process...nearly the opposite was true," Cronon says. "The highest-ranking regional metropolis consolidated its role at a very early date, and promoted the communities in its hinterland as much as they promoted it” (282). Since the west is the result of  symbiotic, simultaneous growth of city and country, neither can claim historic precedence as a basis for moral or social superiority. The arguments of Jefferson and Jackson don’t apply -- at least not in the straightforward ways their proponents had hoped they would.

Throughout the book, Cronon uses an idea of “‘first nature’ (original, prehuman nature) and ‘second nature’ (the artificial nature that people erect atop first nature)” that he attributes to Hegel and Marx (xiv). Cronon’s use of this distinction is complicated by his recognition of the complexity surrounding the term nature -- "Traced most subtly,” he says, “in the work of Raymond Williams.” So he keeps it on a relatively allusive level. In several places, he conflates these ideas with the commonplace sense of a way of thinking becoming “second nature” -- and this connection seems to make sense and work.

As readers familiar with Cronon would expect, he is always quick to point out ecological and historical backgrounds often ignored by others. The Western Frontier was not “free” as Turner said, Cronon reminds. It was taken in conquest from the previous residents. Nor was it pristine. Western prairies were the product of Indian burning and hunting practices, as demonstrated by the incursion of oak and hemlock on ranches and homesteads once whites suppressed fire. Similarly, Cronon regularly begins descriptions of regions like Wisconsin timberlands or western rangelands with surveys of their ecological histories going back to the ice age. This nod to “big history” not only helps reinforce the ecological sensibility underpinning his argument, it serves as an antidote to the alienation Cronon says is produced by separating economic production from consumption.

Chicago, says Cronon, cannot attribute its rapid growth in the last third of the nineteenth century simply to being a central place. Chicago is a central place now (albeit of a much smaller hinterland than it possessed in its heyday), but it grew as a gateway. Beginning with a typically Crononesque description of the many ways Chicago stood at the boundaries of ecosystems, continental watersheds, glacial termini, rural and urban society, railroad “trunk and fan” (90), and “natural and cultural landscapes” (25), he shows Chicago growing by bridging the gap between the east (primarily New York) and the west (all the way to the Rockies). In Chicago, eastern capital met western raw materials and consumers. Railroads, finance, and information gave Chicago temporary, “second natural” advantages. Boosterism, the Civil War, and momentum added to Chicago’s lead, which the city held until newer technologies, population changes, and the problems of success ended its predominance.

Along the way, Cronon tells fascinating stories about the standardization of time (74-8), the growth of organization and capitalism in the railroads (80), the abstraction of commodities into currency (116), the conversion of food production into industry (246-56), and the creation of the familiar consumer world (338-40). Each successive story highlights the market’s increasing and ironic tendency to “obscure the connections between Chicago’s trade and its earthly roots (264)" The "geography of capital,” Cronon says, “produced a landscape of obscured connections” (340). But he doesn’t really explain the process behind this progressive attenuation of producers from consumers, so it’s unclear whether it is unique to Chicago, or a symptom of a more universal alienation.

I think
Nature’s Metropolis makes its case with only occasional reservations. Perhaps Cronon de-emphasizes the temporary nature of Chicago’s advantages to some degree. The Civil War trade (which allowed Chicago to pull ahead of Cincinnati in meat packing) and the closing of New Orleans (which devastated rival St. Louis) may have been given less credit than they are due, for Chicago’s rapid rise to preeminence. Agrarian resistance is mentioned primarily in the context of the Granger Laws, with a few suggestive references to Chicago-published papers like the Prairie Farmer. And once or twice, Cronon seems to reach too far into an allusive moralizing, such as when he describes the Chicago Board of Trade as “boxes within boxes within boxes, all mediating between the commodified world inside and the physical world outside” (146). The most important feature of Nature’s Metropolis is Cronon’s story of the actual historical development of the middle west, rather than an abstract or theorized rural and urban world, as a single, interdependent process. While earlier Eastern settlement may have followed a different path, the growth of the middle west as a single unit is crucially important; especially when evaluating the politics and cultural construction of rural/urban relations in the Populist and Progressive eras.