Nature's Metropolis Critical Essays

William Cronon

Nature’s Metropolis

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The title of William Cronon’s history of Chicago alludes to the paradoxical nature of a city in the midst of nature. In fact, Cronon argues, the traditional distinction between city and country, with their accompanying moral characteristics, is inaccurate. Country and city constitute one interdependent area, one ecosystem that is inevitably affected by people. Reversing Turner’s frontier thesis, the development of a frontier that culminates in a city, Cronon instead suggests that Chicago created its hinterland, developed the frontier, by serving as a gateway city.

According to Cronon, who distinguishes between “first nature” (original, prehuman) and “second nature” (artificial nature added to “first nature"), Chicago gained its economic dominance not because of “first nature” advantages, the Chicago River and its position between two vast watersheds, but because of the “artificial corridors,” the canals and, primarily, the railroads that moved lumber and retail goods west while grain and meat rolled east. The development of the hinterland, however, was also its exploitation and ruin as Native Americans, bison, and forests were destroyed and “organisms” became packaged commodities, even paper, as “futures” replaced the commodities themselves.

Cronon’s revisionist history of Chicago relies heavily on graphs, maps (the bankruptcy maps reflect the flow of capital to Chicago), statistics, and the examples of businessmen whose careers and fates reflect the economics of the time. Despite such material, this well-written books is interesting and entertaining because it reflects Cronon’s own beliefs and values (a “politically correct” view of the Native American, the pollution of rivers, the cutover wasteland, animal rights) and makes an interesting case for the global implications of the Chicago story. Thus, Cronon’s nook looks not only to the past but also to the future. As Cronon points out, “The city-country relations I have described in this book now involve the entire planet.”

Sources for Further Study

The Atlantic. CCLXVII, June, 1991, p. 113.

Booklist. LXXXVII, April 15, 1991, p. 1618.

Chicago Tribune. April 28, 1991, XIV, p. 1.

Choice. XXIX, October, 1991, p. 339.

Library Journal. CXVI, March 15, 1991, p. 98.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, April 28, 1991, p. 12.

The New Yorker. LXVI, July 29, 1991, p. 77.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, February 22, 1991, p. 204.

The Wall Street Journal. May 21, 1991, p. A20.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, June 30, 1991, p. 6.