Sunday, June 1, 2008

Nature's Metropolis

William Cronon, Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: WW Norton, 1991)

Here, Cronon looks at Chicago as both a product of and a shaper of the "first-nature" environment surrounding its metropolitan areas. This is the best possible example of how environmental history could integrate the urban and the rural and downplay the concept of "wilderness," a goal that everyone is always talking about. Cronon shows how Chicago used its position on Lake Michigan to attract railroads, which in turn attracted trade from the "great West"'s hinterlands, which in turn located Chicago as a gateway city: raw goods would enter the city and exit as value-added commodities, with Chicago performing the work of abstracting the commodity from its original context. Chicago was dependent on the strength and financial capital of New York and Philadelphia, which financed the railroads and established Chi-town as the broker of Midwestern ecological capital.

Commodities that Cronon looks at include wheat, lumber, and meat. In each case, Cronon argues, manufacturers in Chicago figured out how to use economies of scale to aggregate these goods into mass quantities and to abstract their value from their physical presence. This last happening worked especially well with wheat, which created the modern concept of the "exchange," at which people traded wheat without ever even seeing the wheat in question. (Here is where I figured out what a "futures market" is - it's more fascinating than one could ever imagine.)

Cronon writes that Chicago's effect upon the rural sites which came within its orbit was both positive for people's lives (easier selling of their goods; better access to cheaper things) and negative (they were at the mercy of distant forces for their livelihood; if they were merchants, they were undercut by cheaper Chicago prices). Cronon shows how certain small-potatoes merchants and farmers resisted the pressure of the giant Chicago firms through associations (sometimes more effective, other times less).

I've been waiting to read this one for a long time, and it was definitely un-disappointing. Cronon's ability to be both a good storyteller and a "man of infinite research" (as TR said about Henry Adams) is a thing to envy. His inclusion of financial records, technological analysis, and cultural productions (novels, esp. in the World's Fair chapter) makes this book a model of enviable American Studies practice.