William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W. W. Norton, c1991)
William Cronon has written an ambitious book in Nature’s Metropolis. Taking Chicago as his example he makes the argument that the traditional distinction between the city and the country masks a profound interdependence between the two. Cronon’s history of Chicago is the history of its relationship with a hinterland – with the farmers and timber men who made it wealthy. The city transformed the products of the country into capital, and that capital helped reorganize nature into the landscape of grains, livestock and timber we call the country. Cronon’s account of this relationship rushes along at a relentless pace that matches the driven energy of the city whose markets he is describing. He ranges across the vastness of the great plains, up and down their river systems, all the way to New York and back again, and through the greater part of the nineteenth century. The effect is rather like being on a train in that if you keep your eyes on the most distant features of the landscape – the Great Lakes, the Mississippi, the prairie horizon itself – you feel rather like you are standing still. But if you should let your gaze wander, and try to take in buildings and trees along the tracks, or the people in their yards, they disappear in a disorienting blur of speed and light. That effect is typical of longuée durée approaches, such as the one Cronon has taken in Nature’s Metropolis, and although he does occasionally reflect on the more human face of history his Olympian perspective can become numbing.
To be fair to Cronon, his ultimate interest is not the individual – not the farmer or the salesman or the capitalist – but the relation of an economic universe to an ecological one. The great agent of change in Nature’s Metropolis is capital, and the object upon which it acts and to which it reacts is the landscape. Capital flows with an inexorable logic in this world, from one market to the next, always following the path of least resistance. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the direction of those flows depended on the waterways along which large volumes of cargo could be moved, but by the end of the century that dependency had been broken, or at least qualified, by the railroads. Farmers in Iowa, to use one of his examples, no longer had to send their produce south via the Mississippi to St. Louis but could send it overland to Chicago if they so chose. And the farms themselves followed the tracks out of the narrow margins of the rivers along whose banks they had previously been huddled and into the prairie. Cronon argues that in this way the railroad not only extended the reach of the Chicago markets into the country, but extended the country itself deeper into the wilderness of the West. Following hard on this revolution in transport was a revolution in the way the merchants of Chicago imagined the very nature of nature’s products.
In his remarkable chapter on wheat for example, Cronon tracks the history of that grain’s relation to Chicago. He discusses how farmers transformed the prairie into farms and how the new technologies of the railroad and the grain elevator transformed an agricultural product into an abstracted commodity. Once grain had become a commodity it could be traded on the futures market dozens of times in an afternoon “without a single kernel of wheat or corn moving so much as an inch.” It is an illuminating illustration of the basic mechanics of capitalism, and a lesson Cronon repeats in chapters on lumber and meat. It is also in this middle section of the book that the narrative begins to show the first signs of ideological strain. In these pages the city and country are an infernal machine that devours nature to spawn capital, and a continent whose delicate and beautiful ecology were thousands of years in the making is stripped bare. We see forests rooted up, the prairie ploughed under, and the skinned carcasses of the buffalo scattered across a de-natured countryside. Cronon’s great moral preoccupation is with the alienation of man from his environment. Fair enough, but what of the alienation of man from man?
The use Cronon makes of Rudyard Kipling observations of the stockyards is telling in this regard. Kipling’s purpose in the text is to express a pious horror at the efficiency of the workers, the shrieking of the pigs, and the shamelessness of a steely-eyed young woman touring the “death factory.” What is striking about Kipling’s observations is not the banality of his analysis, but how his indifference to the dehumanizing nature of the actual work on the killing floor is typical of Nature’s Metropolis as a whole. Cronon, like Kipling, spills plenty of ink over the suffering of the Mother Nature, but little over the labor whose activity was such a torment to her. It seems odd to read so much about the slaughter of the bison, and so little about the destruction of the Sioux with whom they had shared the plains – surely the people who had once lived there were a part of that passing ecology too? Cronon by no means ignores the proletarian cowboys, or the lumberjacks risking life and limb in the Michigan woods, or the French Canadian sex trade workers in Chicago itself, but they make their brief appearances, add a touch of color to the story, and dissolve quickly into the background, haunting his narrative rather than grounding it in human activity.
It may well be that his Braudelian pessimism about the efficacy of the individual in history is well warranted. Cronon’s example of the not-quite-resourceful-enough merchant John Burrows is certainly a case in point. He pops up now and then in Nature’s Metropolis as an example of the old way of doing things – and as a compelling character – but he ends as a moral lesson in how the capitalist who fails to adjust to creative destruction is a capitalist who fails altogether. The book has a Darwinian cast that suggests Kipling would not be the only Victorian who might feel sympathy with Cronon’s views. Yet there is a plate in the book of an African-American working in a slaughter house that raised some questions for me which Cronon’s big picture determinism has not answered. Those questions are about the political choices people make; about slavery in particular and freedom in general; about how to organize a society in a moral manner; about a great deal that Braudel would have said was merely froth on the sea of history. But they are questions that surely contributed to story of Chicago and its hinterland in the nineteenth century. To pay attention to the answers people have given such questions would not weaken Cronon’s central argument about the interdependence of city and country one wit, but it would illuminate the role of political decision making in how that relationship was forged, and in showing how capitalism, whatever else it is, is a profoundly human force.
 William Cronin, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991)
 Cronon, p. 208; p. 256.
 Cronon provides one sentence on how the Sioux traded a great number of buffalo tongues for a few gallons of whiskey on page 215, and in so doing implicates them in the greater tragedy of the Bison he recounts in the ten pages between 213 and 223.