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Travels In and Out of Town: William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis


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Travels In and Out of Town: William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis


Stephen H. Cutcliffe

Cita: Cutcliffe, Stephen H. “Travels In and Out of Town: William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis”. Publicado en Society for the History of Technology, Vol. 51, No. 2, Julio de 2010. Consultado en http://etc.technologyandculture.net/2010/08/cronon-natures-metropoli/ el 18 de agosto de 2010.


Nature’s Metropolis was William Cronon’s effort to show how “the boundary between human and nonhuman, natural and unnatural, is profoundly problematic.”1 His book became an important precursor to the establishment of Envirotech, the group from the Society for the History of Technology and the American Society for Environmental History which recently celebrated its tenth anniversary.2 Envirotech scholarship points to the “illusory boundary” between human beings, and especially their technology, and the natural world. Cronon’s study of nineteenth-century Chicago led the way, and, after nearly twenty years in print, sufficient time has elapsed to warrant a reconsideration of its strengths and weaknesses.

Cronon’s thesis is that neither the city of Chicago nor its hinterland can be understood independently of the other. More broadly, it is problematic to view “city and country [as] separate and opposing worlds . . . for they can only exist in each other’s presence” (pp. 17–18). Instead, “to understand a city’s place in nature,” one needs to trace out the journeys that goods and people take in and out of town.3 Cronon takes his readers on a number of journeys, following people, railroads, commodities—wheat, lumber, hogs— credit flows, and manufactured goods. Each journey adds a layer of insight to the traveler’s composite cartographic image of Chicago’s transformation from a settlement on a swampy portage populated largely by Native Americans prior to 1830 to the Great White City of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.

Given the book’s many topical strands, it is perforce a work of synthesis, which is not to say that Cronon’s research fails to provide sufficient detail about each of his chosen themes. He reaches out to urban historians and western historians as well as environmental historians and historians of technology. It is precisely because he ranges so widely into so many fields of inquiry, however, that specialists have found fault. Thus it was that environmental historians Richard White and Samuel Hays could refer to the book as “extraordinary” and as “innovating and exciting” while at the same time declaring Cronon’s “linkage of capital and nature . . . sometimes . . . problematic” (White) and his analysis “highly selective”(Hays).4 Urban historian Paul Barrett saw the book as making an “incontestably valuable and novel contribution,” though not through its presentation of “strictly new information.” Western historian Walter Nugent called the book “exhaustively researched,” yet found “some fuzziness” in Cronon’s discussion of what constitutes nature.5

The book’s first, and in some sense overarching, journey is laid out in the preface as “Cloud over Chicago.” It is a very personal journey. Here Cronon recounts his early memories as a “middle-class child of a nurse and a professor” driving from suburban New England to their summer home in central Wisconsin, contrasting his love of the green rural landscape to the “forest of smokestacks” with gray clouds “hovering over dark buildings,” what to his young eyes appeared as “an alien landscape” as they passed through the Chicago region (pp. 5–6). It is only with hindsight that Cronon is able to understand that “city and country are inextricably connected” rather than separate entities (p. 51). He is aware, almost painfully so, that his “autobiographical reflections” along this path from childhood to professional historian “will undoubtedly seem self-indulgent to some readers.” Indeed, they did seem self-indulgent to some readers. Southern and urban historian Howard Rabinowitz found that “Cronon’s ‘personal journey’ detracts from his historical ‘unified narrative’” and wished for “more nineteenth-century Chicago and less twentieth-century Cronon.”6 Peter Coclanis, an economic and social historian, and himself a native of the city and card-carrying member of Chicago Local 710 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, found the book not merely “self-indulgent,” but “disturbingly anti-industrial, and ultimately, misanthropic.”7 Surely all these diverse comments are suggestive of a provocative book.

In the epilogue, Cronon invites the reader back into the family’s station wagon with him as they drove to his grandparents’ summer cottage, a pastoral retreat in Green Lake, Wisconsin, to escape the heat and congestion of city life. Blissfully unaware at the time of the connections his grandparents’ small-town Wisconsin hardware store had with the urban entrepôt that was Chicago, he reflects now on “intricate systems” of the city that sustain his current urban life. “We are consumers all, whether we live in the city or the country.” Urban and rural landscapes “are not two places but one” (p. 384). In Cronon’s view, “We all live in the city. We all live in the country. Both are second nature to us.” Because of this, he believes we are “responsible” for both, that “we can only take them together and, in making the journey between them, find a way of life that does justice to them both” (p. 385). This concluding remark is indicative of the theme Cronon set forth in his subsequent and widely read—and controversial—essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness,” in which he argued for doing away with the dualism that artificially separated wild “first nature” from those other rural, suburban, and city “second nature” places most of us call “home.” In all these places we need to “get on with the unending task of struggling to live rightly in the world. . . .”8

This theme also needs to be read in the context of Cronon’s 1993 presidential address to the American Society for Environmental History, “The Uses of Environmental History.” Therein he argues against seeing environmental history as dualistic and in favor of seeing it as one of interdependencies. He also suggests we view history and the stories we as historians write as “parable[s] about how to interpret what may happen.” He believes that “by telling parables that trace the often obscure connections between human history and ecological change”—in this case the journeys in and out of Chicago—“environmental history suggests where we ought to go looking if we wish to reflect on the ethical implications of our own lives.”9 In fact, he is quite explicit about this goal in the preface, where he states that he intends his stories of Chicago “as parables for our own lives” (p. xvii). Read in the context of Cronon’s larger corpus of work and his approach to writing history, the autobiographical reflections in Nature’s Metropolis, which Cronon feared might seem self-indulgent, may still feel that way to some readers, but their inclusion should at least be understandable.

Cronon’s approach is to tell “a series of stories,” many of them tied to particular commodities, rather than attempting to write a complete urban biography of Chicago. As such, he divides his study into three main parts. Part 1, “To Be the Central City,” begins in the early 1830s, when local Potawatomi Indians ceded title to their lands in the Chicago area, and then carries on through the dreams and visions of early boosters who believed there could be but one great western “metropolis” and sought to promote Chicago in that role. Here Cronon briefly introduces the notion of central place theory, most notably that of the economist Johann Heinrich von Thünen (1783–1850) in which an idealized “isolated” central city reached out through zones of influence—agriculture, forestry, grazing—to extend its control over the surrounding hinterland. Cronon does this to remind his readers of the links between city and country and the “market relations [that] profoundly mediate between them.” At the same time he warns readers not to apply von Thünen’s model too literally to Chicago, for the city was a much more dynamic capital-intensive marketplace than it was an isolated state. In Cronon’s view “Frontier and metropolis turn out to be two sides of the same coin” (p. 51).

Cronon has been faulted, most notably by Louis P. Cain, for not drawing fully on the work done by economic historians in industrial location theory, preferring to limit himself to central place theory as a way to explain urban-industrial location and hierarchy.10 Perhaps this is fair criticism, but it is equally likely that Cronon chose to adopt von Thünen less to contribute to theoretical understanding on this point than to make use of an admittedly simplistic model to set up his argument for Chicago as a “gateway” to the hinterlands surrounding it. He primarily wanted to make the case that Chicago is “the place where eastern and western journeys met,” but “less from being what the boosters called central than from being peripheral” (pp. 61, 90). “Reading Frederick Jackson Turner backwards,” as he puts it, Cronon views Chicago not as “the end of the frontier” but rather as a transformative beginning point.

What established Chicago in this role were the railroads—“trunk” lines to the east and “fan” lines to the west and south—but also, in season, water routes across the Great Lakes. Cronon nicely develops a nontechnical overview of these developments, noting that the lesson to be learned was that “all roads led to Chicago,” providing it economic influence over an extensive hinterland, which after 1869 stretched to the Pacific. Railroads “broke radically with nature” to enable Chicagoans to break free of earlier environmental constraints, thereby giving them greater and speedier access both to the east and to the west than had the earlier land- and water-based transportation systems. The railroad at once “became the chief device for introducing a new capitalist logic to the geography of the Great West,” while at the same time creating a new “geographical orientation” with Chicago located at the “break point” between east and west (pp. 81, 83). Cronon convincingly points to this intersection as “the essential geographic fact of Chicago’s location: more than anything else, it constituted the second, constructed, nature that the railroads had imposed on the western landscape.” It was this link that positioned Chicago not as the continent’s central city but as the dominant “gateway city to the Great West” (pp. 90, 92). With the new geography of transportation and capital largely in place by mid-century, Chicago was poised to take full advantage of its hinterland—“first and second nature mingled to form a single world” (p. 93).

Cronon illustrates this transformation in three chapter-length case studies—on grain, lumber, and meat—in part 2, “Nature to Market,” which constitutes the core of the book. This middle section was praised by reviewers at the time of publication and is the section that has held up best, as evidenced by frequent citation in the work of others. Louis Cain called these essays “brilliant,” and other reviewers variously referred to the case studies as highly and impressively detailed. The chapters chart the movement into Chicago of “the wealth of nature,” both first and second nature—grain, lumber, and animals (first bison, then cattle and hogs), and, following technological transformation into more saleable products, their corresponding journeys back out of the city.

It is important to note that, although the terms first nature and second nature were not originally his, Cronon introduced them to the wider environmental-history community. They are admittedly somewhat slippery. But, put briefly, first nature refers to nature without humans, while second nature suggests various levels of human influence laid on top of or replacing first nature. These can range from limited effects on the landscape that semi-sedentary native peoples might have introduced through the use of fire to reduce underbrush and enhance hunting as a result, to commercial agriculture and grazing of domesticated livestock, to consciously shaped recreational parks and preserves, and even to suburban development, all of which would constitute varied levels of second nature. Richard White noted in his review some of the conceptual ambiguity of the terms, especially that of a pure first nature, but suggested Cronon needed such a category to support his contention that nature itself creates value. In this way Cronon is able to argue that “much of the capital that made the city was nature’s own” (p. 151).

In the first of his cases, “Pricing the Future: Grain,” Cronon shows how the natural fertility of tall-grass prairie lands was transformed into wheat fields, and wheat in turn became commodity “futures.” This transformation was enabled by mechanical reapers and the railroad, but even more centrally by the technical innovation of steam-powered grain elevators, linked in turn to the establishment of a standardized grading system “to simplify the natural diversity” of wheat types and qualities. In this way individual sacks of grain grown by many farmers could be conjoined and transformed into liquid-like “golden streams” and in turn more efficiently traded and shipped back out of town in freight cars. By the beginning of the Civil War, Chicago’s elevators, grading system, and a regulated central market governed by a Board of Trade had revolutionized this commodity trade to include a futures market. In Cronon’s view, an artificial partitioning of a second-nature field crop had transformed the economic landscape such that both farmer and consumer were becoming ever more tied to the urban marketplace.

Not only did second-nature field crops contribute value to the grain market, and hence to Chicago’s growth as a city, but so too did the “stored sunshine” of first-nature forests, further adding to the commodities flowing in and out of town. In Cronon’s second case, “The Wealth of Nature: Lumber,” Chicago’s lumberyards and associated sawmills, linked by lake to the North Woods of the upper Midwest, quickly became the “natural” marketplace that transformed white pine into graded and standardized lumber—in particular, the ubiquitous two-by-four so widely adopted for “balloon frame” building construction made famous in the region.11 If lumber typically arrived via Lake Michigan, it more often than not was transhipped by rail—95 percent of the time by 1880—most of it moving westward to the largely treeless prairies, which nicely balanced the eastward flow of grain crops. Cronon views this transformation of nature’s wealth as a “kind of theft.” In his view, “a sizable share of the new city’s wealth was the wealth of nature stolen, consumed, and converted to human ends” (p. 206). Whether one agrees with Cronon that nature’s “stored sunshine” had been “stolen” or not, his discussion of its transformation makes clear that the boundaries—geographic, environmental, and economic—between board-feet of timber and stick-frame prairie housing, indeed of Chicago’s wealth, were, if not illusory, certainly opaque.

In the third case, “Annihilating Space: Meat,” Cronon assesses yet another institutionalized boundary area “where western nature met the Chicago market,” that of the city’s stockyards. Again mediated by the railroads, a third type of “natural” resource—first bison and later western-grown livestock, cattle and hogs—was transformed on the “disassembly lines” of Chicago’s slaughterhouses and subsequently transhipped east in refrigerated rail cars, yet another example of the transformative “interpenetration of city and country.” Transformed were the animals themselves, the prairie landscapes on which they grazed, and the American, if not the world, diet, including its seasonality, as well as the meatpacking industry and its expanding reach. Of these, Cronon suggests that the most visible change was to the landscape. In his view, corporate meatpacking was a systematization of that market with the goal “to liberate it from nature and geography.” Geographic places had come to matter little—“time had conspired with capital to annihilate space” (p. 259). Eventually, as with the lumber industry when it moved south to the Mississippi Valley yellow pine forests, Chicago lost its centrality to other meatpacking centers. Contributing to the shift was the decentralizing role of the diesel truck, which increasingly undermined the centripetal force of the railroad.

The central section of Cronon’s assessment of nature’s commodification does not include all Chicago-area industrial developments—as several of his reviewers, including Carl Condit in this journal, noted.12 Missing is any significant attention to the clothing industry, tobacco-products manufacture, the railroad supply industry, or coal mining and iron and steel manufacturing. However, Cronon was not attempting to provide a comprehensive history of all possible industrial developments in and around Chicago that were tied to its hinterland; rather, he sought to explicate illustrative examples of how “much of the capital that made the city was nature’s own” (p. 151). Admittedly, grain, lumber, and meat as examples of agricultural-commodity processing fit his argument more neatly than do the apparel manufacturing and railroad-car fabrication businesses, but most reviewers found, and most readers continue to find, this appropriate for a work primarily focused on “environmental relationships and transformations.”13

That said, it would be interesting to speculate on how a historian of technology might approach these same topics in terms of the varied technologies so deeply embedded within them, technologies that Cronon tends to black-box rather than fully unpack for their social constructedness. Indeed, a historian of technology might well have entitled the book “Technology’s Metropolis.”14 It is not that Cronon is arguing for an environmental determinism, but more a matter of him wanting to emphasize the importance of nature, previously underappreciated, in understanding Chicago’s rise. Clearly he wants to persuade his readers that it is the special combination of geographic location, environmental endowment, and technological development—in particular, the role of the railroad—that combined to “inextricably connect” city and countryside. It was how all this came together in the second half of the nineteenth century that made Chicago the “gateway to the Great West.” Cronon’s choice of Chicago is no accident because of its immense importance in the nineteenth century, but the same argument about city and countryside being “two sides of the same coin” can be made about all major urban areas, indeed perhaps any urban area. Cronon certainly recognizes this when he notes in the epilogue that while “Chicago really does deserve that overused word ‘unique,’” it also “stand[s] as a representative for cities and markets more generally . . .” (pp. 383–84).

A major topic on which Cronon does focus extensively, one that made Chicago an especially important place, was the flow of capital in and out of the city. This is the topic he addresses in part 3, “Geography of Capital.” In “Gateway City,” the first of three chapters, he literally maps the flow of capital—which he is able to do because he delved deeply into bankruptcy court records for 1873–74 in order to understand who in Chicago owed what to whom and where, and the reverse. The resulting maps reveal the details of Chicago’s credit connectedness to other cities and, coupled with banking data, show why Chicago had far greater financial hinterland reach than Saint Louis or other midwestern cities. As a historian of technology and the environment, I initially found this material harder to navigate and seemingly less germane than the sections that precede it. Perhaps reviewers also felt this way, as few commented explicitly on this material—an exception was economic historian Cain. Over multiple semesters of teaching this book, however, I have found myself appreciating more and more not only the prodigious research that went into the mapping but also the ways in which it complements Cronon’s thesis about the economic, technical, geographic, and environmental hybridity of Chicago’s connections to its hinterland.

Louis Cain also lauded “The Busy Hive,” a chapter which draws its title from a Montgomery Ward catalog cover and tracks the manufactured-product flows out of the city. In a reversal of market direction, compared to the flow of natural commodities coming into Chicago to be processed, Cronon seeks to “open the [outgoing] boxes” in order to “see the objects inside. Then ask where they came from, who brought them here, who will buy them, and where they will go next.” His instructions are to “follow the seller, follow the buyer,” again, in and out of town (p. 310). To do so, Cronon looks not only at the catalog merchandiser, but also at McCormick reaper sales and the careers of two merchants—grocer John Burrows, operating in the pre-railroad era, and Charles Brewster, a dry goods merchant active after the arrival of railroads. Collectively, in Cronon’s view, these four cases, along with the preceding chapter’s credit maps and the earlier commodity analyses, “all were about capital, which was itself not a thing but a relationship. The geography of capital was about connecting people to make new markets and remake old landscapes.” However, as “the ecological place of production grew ever more remote from the economic point of consumption,” this very “geography of capital produced a landscape of obscured connections” (pp. 339, 340). This was undoubtedly true for many, perhaps even most, urban dwellers, but one still has to wonder whether those grain and hog farmers ever really forgot the natural origin of their produce, to say nothing of their own role therein, even when opening an enticing package ordered from the Monkey Ward Wish Book.15 Nonetheless, Cronon’s cartographic overview, even if not entirely new in its detail, is in its bird’s-eye view a magisterial perspective, and the book could well have ended at this point.

The final chapter, “White City Pilgrimage,” treats yet another journey, that taken by so many individuals and families to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. They were mostly ordinary folk, and mostly from Chicago and its hinterland. Historians have generally viewed the White City extravaganza as a bookend to Chicago’s nineteenth-century greatness and role as “gateway to the Great West,” as well as simultaneously reflecting much that was wrong with the city, “the beginning of the end.” Cronon is no exception in this regard. He views the “chaotic collections” of the fair as representative of the incoherent “jumble that was Chicago itself ” at century’s end despite the “apparent unity” of both (pp. 342–43). Once again, it is the unity of White City and countryside of which Cronon seeks to convince his readers. Fair enough—pun intended! Yet his fair summary adds little to what was already known and, more to the point, could be seen as unintentionally directing attention away from the main argument of the book as a whole. That this chapter did not stand out at the time of publication is reflected in the brief mention by most reviewers, or a neglect to mention it at all.

In summary, this was an excellent book when it was first published nearly twenty years ago, and it was amply rewarded: winner of a Bancroft Prize in 1992 and in that same year recipient of the George Perkins Marsh Prize from the American Society for Environmental History and a nominee for the Pulitzer Prize for History.16 It has certainly held up well since then, its continued popularity for classroom assignment and the frequency of its citation being only two of several factors attesting to its classic status.17 Whether one is a historian of technology or the environment, or an economic or urban or western historian, there is still much to ponder in this geographic mapping of nineteenth-century Chicago and its wide-reaching hinterland.



1. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, pp. xxv + 530, was published in New York by W. W. Norton in 1991. It is available from Amazon.com in paperback for $13.57 and in a Kindle edition for $9.99. The quoted phrase is on page xix; page citations for quotes are henceforth indicated parenthetically in the text and refer to the paperback edition.

2. For a collection of essays reflecting Envirotech’s approach to technological and environmental history, and consciously building on Cronon’s work, see Martin Reuss and Stephen H. Cutcliffe, eds., The Illusory Boundary: Environment and Technology in History (Charlottesville, Va., 2010).

3. Cronon had explored this concept earlier in Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York, 1983) and subsequently expanded on it in “The Paths Out of Town,” in Under an Open Sky: Rethinking America’s Western Past, ed. Cronon, George Miles, and Jay Gitlin (New York, 1992), which examined the copper-mining community of Kennecott, Alaska.

4. Reviews by Richard White, Environmental History Review 16 (1992): 85–91, quotes on 85 and 89, and by Samuel P. Hays, Journal of American History 79 (1992): 612– 13. In the American Historical Review 97 (1992): 939, Roderick F. Nash remarked that Cronon was “to be applauded for writing a book that is both scholarly and relevant to understanding and solving serious contemporary environmental problems.”

5. Reviews by Paul Barrett, Journal of Urban History 20 (1994): 577–84, quote on 579, and by Walter Nugent, Western Historical Quarterly 23 (1992): 75–77, quotes on 75 and 76.

6. Howard N. Rabinowitz, “The New Western History Goes to Town, or Don’t Forget that Your Urban Hamburger Was Once a Rural Cow: A Review Essay,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 43 (1993): 73–77, quotes on 77.

7. Peter A. Coclanis, “Urbs in Horto,” Reviews in American History 20 (1992): 14–20, quotes on 14 and 18. Urbs in Horto, “City in a Garden,” is Chicago’s official slogan.

8. William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, ed. Cronon (New York, 1996), 69–90, quote on 90.

9. William Cronon, “The Uses of Environmental History,” Environmental History Review 17, no. 3 (1993): 1–22, quotes on 17 and 20.

10. Review by Louis P. Cain, Journal of Economic History 52 (1992): 503–4.

11. Historians have traditionally viewed 1833 Chicago as the time and birthplace of the “balloon” or “stick” frame building technique using large numbers of smaller-sized pieces of lumber, thereby increasing the ease and speed of building while reducing its costs. This mode of construction quickly expanded out onto the largely treeless prairies. However, Edwin H. Cavanaugh has argued that its origins were much earlier and lay elsewhere, in the Franco-American settlements along the Mississippi River. See Cavanaugh, “Who Designed Your House? A Technological and Cultural History of Conventional Wood Construction, 1790–1880” (Ph.D. diss., Lehigh University, 2002).

12. Review by Carl Condit, Technology and Culture 33 (1992): 591–93; see Coclanis, 17, as well. Condit also lamented that Cronon had failed to mention Chicago’s symbolic culture—the Chicago Symphony, Field Museum, and Newberry Library, among others. Graciously, he did not mention Chicago’s historic role in the erection of skyscrapers, which he himself had written about so extensively and so well. But here again, it seems misplaced criticism for a book not primarily intended to be a complete urban history. Interestingly, Donald C. Miller would shortly publish his City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America (New York, 1996), which covered the same nineteenth-century period and included many of the topics Condit found wanting in Nature’s Metropolis. Read together, these two works complement each other very nicely. Miller briefly refers to Nature’s Metropolis and generally follows Cronon’s argument regarding the city–hinterland interplay.

13. White (n. 4 above), 87. On p. 91, White also suggests “this is a book which will for the foreseeable future set the agenda for environmental history.”

14. I am indebted to Martin Reuss for his suggestion on this point.

15. This is a point to which Cronon alludes but does not fully develop (see p. 339). I am indebted to Silas Chamberlin for his insight on this question.

16. Two Bancroft Prizes are awarded annually by Columbia University to books in American history or diplomacy. The American Society for Environmental History’s George Perkins Marsh Prize is for the best book published in environmental history during the preceding two years.

17. Amazon lists over 230 book authors who have cited Nature’s Metropolis in one way or another; see http://www.amazon.com/Natures-Metropolis-Chicago-Great-West/ dp/book-citations/0393308731/ref=sid_dp_av?ie=UTF8&citeType=cited#cited (accessed 1 March 2010). As but one example of its continued influence, Clay McShane and Joel Tarr, in The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century (Baltimore, 2007), make explicit reference to Cronon’s city–hinterland thesis and use it to frame much of their argument. The Cram101 Textbook Reviews series includes an outline volume for Nature’s Metropolis which consists of detailed, chapter-by-chapter glossaries of terms and concepts introduced in the book, but no further discussion or analysis beyond the definitions themselves.





Stephen H. Cutcliffe is chair for the Department of History at Lehigh University. He is coeditor with Martin Reuss of The Illusory Boundary: Environment and Technology in History (2010). He thanks Joshua Britton, Silas Chamberlin, Robert C. Post, Martin Reuss, and Roger D. Simon for reading and commenting on earlier drafts of this essay.


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