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

4.22 of 5 stars 4.22  ·  rating details  ·  1,166 ratings  ·  87 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
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
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 ...
Chandler Moore
Chicago!!!! EPIC!!!!
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
Tracyfood
May 18, 2010 Tracyfood 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
Dylan
An enthralling read that takes us into late 18th century US capitalism: railways, steel, the industrialization of agriculture and food production, the ecological transformation of the midwest. Cronon's writing is fantastic: clear and spellbinding, cogent and economical. Cronon is able to keep us intrigued as he expounds on the dynamics of steam-powered grain elevators and refrigerated rail cars. He offers us a sweeping geographic history, focusing more on capitalism, technology, and ecology than...more
Cecelia
Wonderfull and far reaching this book was really interesting to me. Although long winded and sometimes a bit dense for me, I felt like I could just as easily skim some of its parts and get just as much from it as I could if I struggled through all of it. That said I tended to mix straitght reading and skimming. By far the most interesting part, at least to me was the section on meat packing and the way that Cronon introduces his ideas and goals in the opening pages and chapters. I would recomend...more
Hafsa
Dec 24, 2010 Hafsa rated it 4 of 5 stars
Shelves: misc
Loved the way Cronon blurred the lines between the urban/rural, city/country through the study of Chicago and the Great West. Also liked his description of first nature and second nature. First nature is the original geography, pre-human unconstructed world. Second nature is the artificial nature erected on top of first nature—the environment shaped by human intervention. It is designed by people and improved towards human ends. Yet, despite the difference, the geography of both is compelling, a...more
Kelsey Fitzpatrick
The Chicago Metropolis that Cronon talks about in his novel could be thought of as anything but "natural". He covers the idea of first nature in the respect of natural landscape. As the "progress" began with railroads, lumber and the meat packing industry he started to refer to the landscape as second nature. Quoting a booster, or one endorsing Chicago's greatness, when looking into a forest it was said, "look at all that lumber" further exemplifying the concept of second nature. Instead of look...more
Donald Linnemeyer
Nature's Metropolis is an economic history of Chicago, specifically in view of how intimately tied together the city and countryside were in the development on the American frontier. Cronon has a great command of his sources, and he uses them creatively (his use of depression-era bankruptcy records to show debt-credit flow between Chicago and its hinterlands was genius).

Obviously if you're interested in American history, this is a great book, but if you've got much interest in economics, especi...more
Lucius
An excellent history of Chicago and how the railroad and technologies that took advantage of it gave Chicago an edge over other cities to become the gateway to The West. And how those same advantages allowed the natural resources to be used up and for other cities to grow to be gateways of their own and eventually lead to Chicago's decline. It challenges the commonly held views about the country and city being separate things at odds with each other, when in reality they are two sides of the sam...more
Andrew Miller
We often think about the city vs. the country, but Cronon says that the frontier is interconnected with the East, as each is dependent upon one another. He is interested in connecting Chicago, the Frontier, and the West with business. For example, in his chapter on meat, he talks about how refrigeration of meat expanded, not necessarily to preserve meat longer, but rather because customers bought more if they could see the product. Therefore, marketing impacted meat sales, consumer experiences,...more
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