Review: "Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West"

Updated on April 11, 2017
Larry Slawson profile image

Larry Slawson received his Masters Degree in History at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.

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Synopsis

Throughout William Cronon’s book, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, the author traces the development and progress of Chicago’s urban landscape during the nineteenth-century. Through an extensive examination of the city’s growth during this time period, Cronon asserts that a fundamental relationship between both the rural and urban elements of American society can be deciphered that help explain the development of both the Western frontier as well as central metropolises, such as Chicago. Countering the arguments made by historian, Frederick Jackson Turner – who argued in the late nineteenth-century that America’s frontier existed independently from the urban sector – Cronon interjects his own historiographical interpretation which argues that neither the city nor the frontier was capable of growing or existing on its own, individually (Cronon, 18). Instead, Cronon argues that both the countryside and cities of America formed a symbiotic relationship that provided for one another’s needs. Using Chicago as his focal point for this assertion, Cronon’s book points out that metropolis areas provided large markets for commodities to be sold from the countryside which, in turn, were supplied by the city’s hinterlands. These regions, which existed outside of cities, consisted of not only farms, but middle-to-small sized towns as well. Chicago, he argues, was afforded a great opportunity to expand to epic proportions due to the abundance of resources funneled into its interior by these regions. As Chicago grew from its hinterlands, however, Cronon argues that its expansion allowed for substantial growth of the frontier as well, due to the strong economic benefits that the West was able to garner from Chicago’s large markets, as well as technological and transportation-relation innovations provided by the city. Without one another, Cronon argues that neither could have existed. As he states: “The two [frontier and city] can exist only in each other’s presence...their isolation is an illusion…they need each other, just as they need the larger natural world which sustains them both (Cronon, 18).

Main Points and Features

In his analysis of Chicago’s economy (through a detailed explanation of its grain marketing, lumber and meat production, canals, harbors, and railroads), Cronon effectively demonstrates how Chicago came to serve as a gateway to the West, and showcases how its economic influence managed to reach the deepest corners of the American frontier by the end of the nineteenth-century. In doing so, he argues that Chicago helped shape smaller frontier cities and towns that depended on its capital, transportation, and resource flows for sustainability. Cronon’s work is well-argued, and relies heavily upon a wide array of primary documents, including: memoirs, diaries, account books from businesses and individuals, bankruptcy records, letters, invoices, government documents, contracts, and credit reports. This, in turn, adds a high-level of veracity and support for his overall argument as he also draws from an impressive array of periodicals, newspapers, articles, dissertations and secondary resources as well. Cronon’s interpretation is largely innovative and unique for its time, and offers a strong counter to the work of Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis,” while also building on the work of Johann Heinrich von Thunen and his “central place theory” by rejecting his centralized view of metropolises and their overall development.

In regard to positive aspects of this work, Cronon’s ingenious use of bankruptcy records (to map out the dispersal of capital from Chicago into its hinterlands) is a particularly interesting aspect of his book. The incorporation of these primary documents demonstrate how a seemingly unimportant and neglected body of sources can, in turn, be instrumental in understanding the lives, patterns, and conditions of the past (Cronon, 272). Aside from his clever use of sources, however, the only negative aspect of Cronon’s work deals with his lack of detail regarding the influence of the Civil War on Chicago’s development. Perhaps due to his focus on the environment and economy, Cronon only devotes a few passages to the war’s overall impact on the North and Chicago. In addition, Cronon does not adequately define the dichotomy between “first” and “second” nature in an explicit manner either (Cronon, 267). Although neither of these are harmful to his overall thesis, a more detailed account of the Civil War’s impact and an explanation of this dichotomy would have been a nice addition to his book.

Final Thoughts

William Cronon’s book, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, offers both an intriguing and compelling account of the growth of Chicago and its Western hinterlands during the nineteenth-century. Throughout this work, I was highly impressed with Cronon’s overall argument as well as his ability to provide a comprehensive account of Chicago’s growth in a manner that was both focused and thorough. I was also impressed with Cronon’s ability to synthesize his sources in a narrative-driven manner that appeals to not only a scholarly audience, but the general public as well. This was particularly important for someone such as me, who has had little experience with reading urban and environmental histories until now. As such, the story-driven manner in which Cronon explained Chicago’s progress was both engaging and highly appealing to me. Moreover, I was deeply impressed with the fact that none of Cronon’s pages seem to diverge from his main argument, as each sentence and paragraph seems to serve a unique purpose in moving his thesis along. Cronon’s organization of the book is also cleverly done, as he focuses each chapter and section on particular aspects of Chicago’s expansion to “metropolis” status, rather than following a chronological timeline as most historical works do. His lengthy discussion on each phase of the city’s development is a testament to the vast research that was required to substantiate each of his claims. This, in turn, gives Cronon’s work a scholarly feel that significantly enhances the veracity of his overall argument.

Overall, I give this book 5/5 Stars and highly recommend it to anyone interested in an urban and environmental history of Chicago and the expansion of the Great West.

Questions for Further Discussion

1.) Did you find the argument/thesis of this book to be compelling? Why or why not?

2.) Who was the intended audience for this piece? Can scholars and non-academics, alike, enjoy the contents of this book?

3.) What were some of the strengths and weaknesses of this book? Can you identify any areas that could have potentially been improved by the author?

4.) What did you learn as a result of reading this book? Were you surprised by any of the facts presented by Cronon?

5.) What sort of primary source material does the author rely on? Does this reliance help or hurt his overall argument?

6.) After reading this work, would you be willing to recommend this book to a friend or family member?

7.) Did you find this work to be engaging? Why or why not?

8.) What type of scholarship does Cronon's work build upon?

Works Cited

Cronon, William. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.

Do you agree that Chicago played an important role in the development of the Great West?

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