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Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West

4.19 of 5 stars 4.19  ·  rating details  ·  1,551 ratings  ·  99 reviews
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 tightl ...more
Paperback, 592 pages
Published May 17th 1992 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published March 1st 1991)
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Aaron Arnold
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 ord ...more
John
So I have this short list of books that I plan on reading when I go to certain places, like how I read "Centennial" when I went to Colorado, I'm going to read Michener's "Texas" when I go to Texas someday, and I'm going to read that book "The Fatal Shore" that every used book store in America has two copies of, someday when I go to Australia.
This was my planned Chicago book, even though I knew ahead of time that it isn't really a "history" of Chicago, per se. It is more of an interpretation of t
...more
Joseph Stieb
The ideas in this book were really fascinating. Cronon argues that our society's strict dichotomy between nature and city overlooks their tangled histories. Focusing on Chicago, he shows how the rapid growth of this city fueled economic, social, and environmental changes in the Great West in the late 19th century. Chicago's rise depended largely on its position as a hub, transit point, and eventually a market for grain, lumber, meat, and other product flows. Boosters for Chicago touted its "natu ...more
Sean Munger
This book is quite deservedly a classic in environmental and economic history. I loved it.

Chicago was a regionally dominant urban center in the 19th century, but it could only become so because of its close relationships with the countryside, which defined every significant aspect of Chicago’s importance. It became a place where markets of various sorts connected with each other, were reorganized, consolidated and reimagined, and where maximum economic benefit (at least for some) was squeezed ou
...more
Andrew
I love Chicago because it's not New York. New York has been fully postmodernized, but Chicago still is a city of sausage factories and scrap yards. Its industrial heart still beats strong.

Cronon links the history of the city to its hinterland, and the way they are inextricably the same thing. We see the city as an assemblage of its commodities (wood, meat, and grain) and this is a pretty unique perspective. If you're at all interested in history or the environment, it's a great read. That goes d
...more
Samuel
William Cronon's groundbreaking work in environmental history (not very often do authors produce two but this is second after changes in the land) describes the interdependent growth of Chicago and the Great [American] West. Appropriating the language and terminology used by Hegel and Marx, Cronon describes how “second nature”—the one humans’ build on top of “first nature"—is abetter way to describe the built environment rather than excluding humans from nature entirely. He demonstrates, by look ...more
Chris
In Nature?s Metropolis William Cronon assigns himself not only the arduous task of detailing the rise of the city of Chicago but also interpreting what that rise meant to the shaping of western United States ? and frontier cultures. Cronon directly challenged Jackson?s Western Frontier theory and placed the agency of growth of the west not with nature?s bounty but rather with man?s manipulation of nature?s bounty or what the author refers to as ?first nature? and ?second nature? respectively. It ...more
Willis
This is quite a different book than what I've read before. It is more of a book written from the perspective of an economist than from a typical historian. A different approach that takes some time getting used to. I started reading it once and couldn't finish it at the time because I had a hard time following what the author was saying. Started a second time much later and was able to finish and it got better by the end. It is very thought provoking and forces you to think about your place with ...more
David Fulmer
This is an academic book which describes in great detail the rise of Chicago from a fur trading post to a major metropolis capable of putting on a World’s Fair of great beauty, attracting visitors from around the world. The author, William Cronon, has a thorough knowledge of his subject and the footnotes and bibliography collect an exhaustive list of sources for every possible angle on the development of Chicago in the nineteenth century.

His thesis that the history of a city and its surrounding
...more
UChicagoLaw
David Weisbach recommended this book to me as a good way of understanding why Chicago is what it is. It is a fascinating account of our wonderful city and why it and not St. Louis became the great city of middle America. - Todd Henderson

This was recommended to me by Lior Strahilevitz as a great introduction to the history of Chicago. - Michael H. Schill
Jim Pfluecke
I really enjoyed this book. To start with the negatives, it is a bit on the long side, but all that meant is that it took longer to read because I still found it interesting.

This book is about the relationship between Chicago and the natural world around it. It chronicles the growth of Chicago and its economy and industry as the natural resources of the region were developed and exploited. So we see how the livestock, timber, and grain industries all contributed to the growth of Chicago and how
...more
Heather
You know how "connectivity" sounds like a load of crap? Well this book proves you wrong! From the construction of the transcontinental railroad uniting U.S. timetables to the standardization of wheat sales, this book vividly shows how the flow of information and physical connectedness gave rise to capital markets in the U.S.
Andrew
Mandatory.
Gib
Of all the non fiction books I've read in my non adolescent life, this and The Organic Machine did the most to turn my head inside out.

At least that's the way I remember it.

And you know which of the fiction books succeeded ... the fall of a crystal palace ...
Chuck
Everything everyone says about this book is true. Extremely enjoyable read. Excellent overview of the American Midwest regional economy.
Eric
This is likely one of the best books I've read about cities ever. Cronon demonstrates how the United States urbanized and cities developed on the west through the exploitation and settlement of the west. From the forest of Minnesota to the plains of the midwest we are given an awesome tour of how the United States was settled and how Chicago became one of the largest cities in North America. A great book that really demonstrates well how cities, suburbs, rural areas are all linked in a complex w ...more
Chandler Moore
Chicago!!!! EPIC!!!!
Max Potthoff
This book is incredibly influential in shaping my view of the landscape that I come from, live in. I admire Cronon for his self-awareness of how European pastoralism animates his present interests and historical identity. The evocative image that he uses-of smokestack and Green Lake-do a lovely job of illustrating the schizophrenic and paradoxical relationship that define rural and urban spaces in our cultural consciousness. City and Country are products of the same historical trend, and as such ...more
Marvin
A long, difficult, but extremely rewarding book about how people transformed the landscape as they built a region (a hinterland) to support Chicago’s development. Cronon focuses particularly on grain farming, lumber, and meatpacking. If you don’t have time to read the book, read “Perspectives on Nature’s Metropolis: A Book Forum,” in the Annals of Iowa 51 (Summer 1992), 480–525.

At the heart of Nature’s Metropolis is an abstract irony with very practical consequences: the market systems developed
...more
Christopher Sutch
This is a thoroughly researched book on the economic and environmental history of Chicago, focusing especially on the 19th and early 20th centuries. Especially good are the chapters on the mapping of capital flows from Chicago to the cities in the East and to the rural frontier hinterlands to the West; and the chapter on the social reactions by rural peoples to Chicago as an urban space. What is not so good is Cronon's inexplicable (to me, anyway, a marxist cultural studies historian) misreading ...more
Kaufmak
I'm putting together a bookshelf here on Goodreads of my old comprehensive exam book list. Some I don't remember at all, some I remember simply because I disliked them and some I remember because they are profound, worthwhile and still relevant. Cronin's Nature's Metropolis falls into the last category. I'm sure in the intervening 20 plus years other works have come to flesh out Cronin's original ideas, but it is still worth your time.

Forgive me if I'm a little sketchy on the details, it's been
...more
Evan Barrett
A fantastic, eminently readable history of economic geography in nineteenth century middle America. First, a disclaimer: I was a history major at the University of Wisconsin, and in that department Mr. Cronon is widely revered (with good reason, however). I took an American Environmental History class (a historical discipline that Cronon helped nurture in its earliest stages) about 10 years ago, and in retrospect the nineteenth century portion of that class was pretty much modeled on the structu ...more
Paul
In Nature’s Metropolis, William Cronon describes the link between economic development and ecological change. Cronon argues that most people have lost the mental connection between the urban world in which they live, the products they consume and the environment that makes modern life possible. The main point of his work is to reestablish that connection. Cronon uses the nineteenth-century Chicago and its hinterland, which stretched from the Appalachians to the Great Basin, as a case study for h ...more
David Bates
In his 1991 work Nature’s Metropolis William Cronon focused on 19th century Chicago as a western frontier. Cronon argued that the frontier is best understood as an expanding unified capitalist system which incorporates both city and countryside, with the “second nature” of national transportation, markets and capital flows altering the “first nature” of local forest and plains ecosystems. To that end Cronon investigated the flows of grain, timber, livestock, credit and manufactured goods to and ...more
Adrian Buck
Not as easy a read as Miller's City of the century but it has helped me to understand better what I saw from the Boundary Waters to Disneyworld. Most importantly, that you couldn't have had the latter without the former. What struck me about the Boundary Waters was the poverty of the natural resources, wildlife was sparse not because Man had disturbed the habitat, but because it's a really tough environment for even bears and moose to make a living in: glaciation had pushed all the topsoil down ...more
Abby Brown
Nature's Metropolis is a story with multiple narratives. William Cronon describes the rise of Chicago as a "gateway" to development of the "Great West" in the 1800s. He questions the assumption of many in viewing a dichotomy between city and country or urban and rural (Cronon 1992:18). And he focuses on economic and ecological change connected to mass urbanization and industrialization in the United States. Cronon begins with a history of Chicago as a fur-trading post in the 1770s, and the mass ...more
Tracy
May 18, 2010 Tracy marked it as didn-t-finish
Shelves: tracyfood, school
" . . however we may feel about the urban world which is the most visible symbol of our
human power—whether we celebrate the city or revile it, whether we wish to “control”
nature or “preserve” it—we unconsciously affirm our belief that we ourselves are unnat-
ural. Nature is the place where we are not.

"The oddity of this belief becomes most evident when we try to apply it to an actual
place and time in history. . . . The journey that carried so many travelers into the city
also carried them out a
...more
Andypants
When people ask me where I'm from I always say: The country, a rural area, no fences, no sidewalks, not connected to the city. In this book Cronon dynamites apart my entire idea of place.

It shows the symbiosis and growth of Chicago and what we now call the Midwest during the 1800s. This is important not just in showing the extremely fast rise of our 3rd largest city, but in showing the complete entanglement of the countryside to the city. Through narrative and facts, he relentlessly and directl
...more
James
I really enjoyed this book. To start with the negatives, it is a bit on the long side, but all that meant is that it took longer to read because I still found it interesting.

This book is about the relationship between Chicago and the natural world around it. It chronicles the growth of Chicago and its economy and industry as the natural resources of the region were developed and exploited. So we see how the livestock, timber, and grain industries all contributed to the growth of Chicago and how
...more
Matt
Cronon's book is a great example of economic history, and one that is both specific to Chicago's development in the mid-late 19th century, and generalizable to economic relations which form and mature between city and country. He painstakingly plots out how Chicago shaped the hinterlands around it, throughout much of the West of the US, based on its ability to centralize demand and create specialized economic activity for everyone's benefit. In turn, the rural population that became increasingly ...more
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